The Groundbreaking Talent of Anne Wiggins Brown

Posted in Arts, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2022-07-17 21:08Z by Steven

The Groundbreaking Talent of Anne Wiggins Brown

Amistad Research Center
New Orleans, Louisiana

On September 30, 1935, soprano Anne Wiggins Brown stepped onto the stage at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. It was the much anticipated world premiere of George Gershwin’s new “folk opera,” and a big moment for the young vocalist. Far from just a lucky break, this was a major opportunity that Brown had carved out for herself, the culmination of years of work. For the past two years, she had spent many long days completing her classes as a graduate student at the Juilliard School (she had been the first African American student admitted there after auditioning at age 15), and then traveling down to meet with Gershwin and work on new material for his show. In a bold moment, the twenty-one year old had written the composer a letter after reading news of his new project. Once he heard her sing, Gershwin not only included her in his production, but in his writing process, eventually developing her character into a co-lead and a career-defining role for Brown. And thus the story of DuBose Heyward’s Porgy became known to the world as Porgy and Bess

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Theater; On Hearing Her Sing, Gershwin Made ‘Porgy’ ‘Porgy and Bess’

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2012-09-16 23:37Z by Steven

Theater; On Hearing Her Sing, Gershwin Made ‘Porgy’ ‘Porgy and Bess’

The New York Times

Barry Singer

In his tragically short life, George Gershwin knew only one Bess, and this bittersweet fact has framed Anne Wiggins Brown’s life. She was that Bess in the original production of Gershwin’s operatic masterwork based on Dorothy and DuBose Heyward’s theatrical adaptation of Heyward’s novel “Porgy.”

More than 60 years have passed since Gershwin’s death in 1937 from a brain tumor. Though singers of every race and nationality have by now assayed the role, Ms. Brown will always be the first, the Bess Gershwin himself chose in 1934.

“Bess is slender but sinewy; very black,” wrote the Heywards. “She flaunts a typical but debased Negro beauty.”

At 85, Ms. Brown still possesses the vibrancy and unaffected elegance that must have first inspired Gershwin. She is not, however, “very black.” For Gershwin that was never a problem. “I don’t see why my Bess shouldn’t be cafe au lait,” he told Ms. Brown before offering her the role.

Yet color has haunted Ms. Brown’s career. In the segregated America of the 1930’s and 40’s, where could a classically trained African-American soprano hope to have a career? The only answer was abroad…

…She was born Annie Wiggins Brown in Baltimore in 1912. Her father, a doctor, was the grandson of a slave; her mother’s parents were of Scottish-Irish, black and Cherokee Indian descent. At 23, Ms. Brown was introduced to the world as an opera singer and an African-American in “Porgy and Bess.” Thirteen years later, in 1948, after more than a decade of concertizing and frustrated ambitions, she left America for Norway…

…”To put it bluntly, I was fed up with racial prejudice,” she explained, her English accented with Scandinavian inflections. “Though there is no place on earth without prejudice. In fact, a French journalist wrote an article during one of my tours there asking: ‘Why does she say she is colored? She’s as white as any singer. It’s just a trick to get people interested.’ Can you imagine? Of course I was advertised as ‘a Negro soprano.’ What is ‘a Negro soprano’?”…

…When the show’s closing notice was posted after 124 performances, the producers announced a tour with stints in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Chicago, to be followed by a week at the National Theater in Washington. Ms. Brown was livid. The National Theater, she knew, was a segregated house.

“I told them: ‘I will not sing at the National. If my mother, my father, my friends, if black people cannot come hear me sing, then count me out.’ I remember Gershwin saying to me, ‘You’re not going to sing?’ And I said to him, ‘I can’t sing!’ ”

After protracted negotiations, the National, for one week only, became an integrated house. When the curtain came down on the final performance of “Porgy and Bess,” segregation was reinstated…

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Anne Brown, Soprano Who Was Gershwin’s Bess, Is Dead at 96

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography on 2012-09-16 04:10Z by Steven

Anne Brown, Soprano Who Was Gershwin’s Bess, Is Dead at 96

The New York Times

Douglas Martin

Anne Brown, a penetratingly pure soprano who literally put the Bess in “Porgy and Bess” by inspiring George Gershwin to expand the character’s part in a folk opera that was originally to be called “Porgy,” died Friday in Oslo. She was 96.

Her daughter Paula Schjelderup announced the death.

“Porgy and Bess” burst onto the American scene in 1935 as a sophisticated musical treatment of poor blacks. Critics could not make out whether it was a musical comedy, a jazz drama, a folk opera or something quite different. Time told: it became part of the standard operatic repertory, including that of the Metropolitan Opera.

Drawing from the gritty experiences of South Carolina blacks, “Porgy and Bess” introduced songs that came to be lodged in American culture. Ms. Brown was the first person Gershwin heard singing the part of Bess, a morally challenged but achingly human character who was relatively minor in the original 1925 DuBose Heyward novel and the 1927 hit stage play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward.

As he composed the opera, often with Ms. Brown at his side, Gershwin added more and more music for her. Her voice was also the first he heard singing several other parts in the opera…

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Anne Wiggins Brown (1912-2009)

Posted in Arts, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2012-09-16 03:49Z by Steven

Anne Wiggins Brown (1912-2009)

Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music

Randye Jones

Soprano Anne Wiggins Brown was born on August 9, 1912, in Baltimore, Maryland. (This year, rather than 1915, was confirmed by the singer herself.) Her father, Dr. Harry F. Brown, was a prominent physician and grandson of a slave. Her mother, Mary Wiggins Brown, was of African, Cherokee and Scottish-Irish ancestry. She and her three sisters were active in the musical and theatrical life of the racially segregated community. Brown described her early musical training:

I was always with music. My mother played and sang and she taught her four daughters very much about music. She was my first vocal teacher. In those days there was not much that an African-American could do in the theatre, except roles as a servant or something. I thought about being an opera singer but there also was the same difficulty. In those days the Metropolitan didn’t have any African-American singers.

Brown’s parents tried to enroll her in an area Catholic school, where they hoped to foster her musical talents. However, the school refused to admit an African American. After confronting similar discrimination years later when she applied to the Peabody School of Music, Brown was admitted to Morgan State College in Baltimore and attended Teachers’ College, Columbia University. She continued her classical vocal studies with Lucia Dunham at the Institute of Musical Art at the Juilliard School. Brown became the first African American to win Juilliard’s prestigious Margaret McGill scholarship…

…The song Anne Brown sang for Gershwin, “City Called Heaven,” became a standard of the soprano’s concert repertoire. Gershwin, hearing Brown’s performance of the spiritual, decided that she should be his Bess. The composer often invited Brown to sing not only Bess’s lines as they were written, but other characters’ parts. As work on the opera progressed, Bess’s role grew to the point that Brown suggested to Gershwin that the character’s name be added to the title  [“Porgy and Bess”]…

…Brown discussed the effects her skintone had on her career:

“We tough girls tough it out,” she said with a wry grin. “I’ve lived a strange kind of life—half black, half white, half isolated, half in the spotlight. Many things that I wanted as a young person for my career were denied to me because of my color. On the other hand, many black folks have said, ‘Well, she’s not really black.’ … Only when I went on a train or into a theater did I think about passing, and even then I didn’t consider it passing. I figured if I simply asked for a ticket it was their problem. Onstage, though, it they couldn’t take me as I was—the hell with them.”

Determined to escape the racism so prevalent in America, Brown travelled overseas in 1946…

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