Anne Brown: Soprano who starred in the original production of 'Porgy and Bess'

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The Independent Online

In 1935, the soprano Anne Brown created the role of Bess in George Gershwin's masterly folk opera Porgy and Bess and was a prime influence on Gershwin's decision to make the character as important as that of Porgy. When she joined the cast of the show, it bore the same title – Porgy – as DuBose Heyward's 1925 source novel and 1927 play. But as Gershwin wrote more and more music for Brown, the part became equally important and the show became Porgy and Bess.

Anne Wiggins Brown was born in 1912 in Baltimore, Maryland, where her father was a surgeon. Her mother loved music and played the piano, and Brown studied singing at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where she won the Margaret McGill prize as the best singer at the academy, though she knew the top echelons of opera would be closed to her – the Metropolitan did not hire a black singer until it welcomed Marian Anderson in 1955.

But Brown's career was to take an unexpected turn. When George Gershwin first read Heywood's novel Porgy, he expressed his ambition to turn it into an opera, but then waited while Heywood and his wife, Dorothy, turned it into a play. In 1933, Heywood wrote to Gershwin telling him that the Theatre Guild was interested in turning the project into a musical to star Al Jolson, with a score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, so he needed to know if the composer was still interested. Gershwin pointed out that the musical would almost certainly make a lot of money, but Heywood said that he was not interested in money, he wanted Porgy to become a folk opera, not a musical comedy. "If you're really going to write our opera," he wrote, "I'm going to turn the guild down definitely".

Brown was an unknown and shy student when she read that George Gershwin was casting black singers in his new show and wrote to him asking to audition. Her rendition of spirituals and classical arias convinced Gershwin that she would be the ideal Bess; he had been considering Etta Moten, who had a much lighter voice. The vibrancy of Brown's lyric soprano inspired Gershwin to expand Bess's repertoire, and Brown later recalled: "He would telephone me and say, 'Come on down, I want you to sing something.' I'd go down and sing it, and he'd sing it with me, especially the duet roles," she recalled. When Brown pointed out that "Summertime", sung by a supporting character near the opera's start, was likely to be the show's biggest hit, Gershwin wrote a reprise for her in the third act.

Brown also stated that Gershwin was romantically interested in her but that she kept their relationship platonic, being aware that he was also courting the actresses Paulette Goddard (though she was married to Charlie Chaplin) and Simone Simon.

Gershwin was concerned that the withdrawn soprano had no stage experience, and so he sent her to London, where the producer Lew Leslie, as a favour, gave her a small role in the revue Blackbirds, to provide her with stage experience.

When Porgy and Bess finally opened in a tryout engagement in Boston, it received a 15-minute ovation and a rapturous reception from both audience and critics. The ovation in New York was even longer, but though theatre critics praised the show, music critics were colder, hostile to the inclusion of hit numbers and unsure how to classify the piece. Its authors called it a "folk opera"; the music historian David Ewen was to describe it as "musical comedy lifted to the status of a powerful and moving native art".

Though Brown and her leading man, Todd Duncan, were acclaimed for their performances, Victor's four-record album of "highlights" featured Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson, who were considered bigger names.

Porgy and Bess ran for 124 performances, and Gershwin pointed out that if Die Meistersinger was given about six times a season at the Met, then the run of Porgy and Bess represented one of over 20 years in an opera house.

The show then started a tour that was to end with an engagement in Washington's National Theatre, where the manager, S E Cochran, kept in force the policy of segregation. Duncan announced that he had no intention of performing in a theatre that he himself would be unable to attend, and Brown was quick to join him in the protest. Cochran tried to compromise – negroes could attend matinees – but the stars said that would not do. A suggestion that blacks could sit in the second balcony was also rejected, despite the Musicians' Union threatening to fine Duncan $10,000 and suspend him for a year. Finally, Cochran gave way – black people could buy tickets for any part of the house, and he was surprised that not one white person asked for a refund. Though the theatre afterwards went back to its original policy, the victory for Duncan and Brown was considered a significant early step in the movement towards racial equality.

In 1940 Brown and Duncan at last recorded a set of Porgy and Bess songs for Decca Records. In 1941, when a revival of the opera opened in New Jersey, the composer and critic Virgil Thompson courageously reversed his opinion of the show, and others soon followed. A New York revival in 1942 ran for eight months, the longest run up to then of any revival in stage history. Brown, who had pursued a concert career, starred again with Duncan, though she left the show during the run, to be replaced by Etta Moten.

In 1945, Warner Brothers made a film of George Gershwin's life, Rhapsody in Blue, and though it was inaccurate and occasionally risible – publisher Max Dreyfuss (Charles Coburn) tells George on the opening night of Porgy and Bess: "You've done it, my boy, you've made opera entertaining!" – it had some fine musical performances, including a beautiful rendition of "Summertime" by Anne Brown.

The same year Brown and Duncan were guest stars for a successful production of Porgy and Bess in Denmark. In 1948 Brown settled in Oslo, Norway, with her third husband, Thorleif Schjelderup, a lawyer who won a bronze medal for skiing in that year's Olympics. Her first husband had been a Juilliard student with whom she eloped, and her second husband a doctor. A bout with asthma ended her singing career in 1953, but after divorcing her husband in 1969, Brown began teaching and her students included the actress Liv Ullman. She lived to see Porgy and Bess staged at the Houston Grand Opera in Texas in 1976, the Metropolitan in 1985 and Glyndebourne in East Sussex in 1986.

At the Metropolitan Opera, she and Duncan met their counterparts, Grace Bumbry and Simon Estes, and in an interview Brown commented: "I was born too soon. If I was young now, I would start my career here, but of course I could not do that then."

Tom Vallance

Anne Brown, singer: born Baltimore, Maryland, 9 August 1912; married firstly Florid Howard (marriage dissolved), secondly Dr Jacob Petit (marriage dissolved, one daughter) thirdly Thorlief Schjelderup (marriage dissolved, one daughter); died Oslo, Norway, 13 March 2009.