Anne W. Brown, the original Bess.
August 9

Anne W. Brown
*On this date Anne Wiggins Brown was born in 1912, She was an African-American singer and entertainer.

Had it not been for Brown, George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess might be known by its original name Porgy. From a well-to-do family in Baltimore, Maryland, Brown was obsessed with being a star at an early age. Her mother enrolled her in private schools including the Peabody School of Music where she constantly ran into the barriers of racism. Undaunted, she kept her dreams alive, they included plays and musicals where she sang everything from Bach to Blues.

Her talent came to the attention of Constance Black, the wife of the owner of the Baltimore Sun who encouraged her to attend Juilliard School of Music. It was here that Brown won the Margaret McGill Scholarship that attracted the attention of Gershwin. During her audition for him her requested of her an unaccompanied rendition of the spiritual “City Called Heaven”; hence the emergence of Bess. They worked closely on the project, not only rewriting act three to have her sing Summertime, but changing the title of the opera. The premiere took place on October 10th 1935 at New York’s Alvin Theater.

Brown’s first marriage was to Florid Howard, a Juilliard student; her second marriage was to Dr. Jacob Petit. Her first child Paula was born during this marriage. She declined the lead role in Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones but toured with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra breaking attendance records in Philadelphia. Her most celebrated performances were between 1942 and 1948 at Carnegie Hall and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Brown’s tour of Europe was well received and her third marriage was to a Norwegian Ski Jumper. During a 1953 European tour she developed respiratory problems which were diagnosed as asthma.

This condition ended her singing career. Although a Norwegian citizen, Anne Wiggins Brown never forgot her racial struggles in America. In 1935 she led the Porgy and Bess cast in protest when they learned that the show at the National Theater in Washington D. C. was to be performed before a segregated audience. She is a sought after teacher with students such as actress Liv Ullmann and jazz singer Karen Krog as her former students.

Reference:
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
ISBN 0-926019-61-9

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