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.1
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.
During Brown’s second year of graduate studies, she learned about a new opera:
There was another black girl at Juilliard at that time and she came one day to me and said “Have you read the news about Porgy? It was not Porgy and Bess at that time, it was just Porgy. I discovered that George Gershwin was searching for singers, both musical comedy and jazz singers, for an opera that he was writing. I wrote him a letter that same evening. And a few days later I had a call from his secretary asking me to come for an audition…. I just did the things that I would have done at the Juilliard. He asked me, finally, to sing a Negro spiritual. To which I reacted rather aggressively, perhaps. And I said I didn’t bring any of that kind of music and I resented the fact that so many people expected African-Americans to sing Negro spirituals and sometimes only that. That hadn’t been his attitude at all. But when he saw how I reacted to it, he said, “All right.” And then I sang a spiritual for him without an accompaniment because I didn’t have any music for it. And he was very, very, pleased.2
The song Anne Brown sang for Gershwin, “City Called Heaven,” became a standard of the soprano’s concert repertoire. For Gershwin, it decided for him that Brown 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. She commented that:
One day, George Gershwin said, “Come, Annie, ‘after he met my mother and heard her call me Annie, he always called me Annie,’ “I have something to tell you. You take a glass of orange juice with me across the street at the cafe.” He ordered something–a sandwich. And then he said, “I have news for you, from now on George Gershwin’s opera will be known as Porgy and Bess.” And of course that was a great thrill because that already upped the importance of the role I was to play. We joked about it a bit. I had heard rumors that maybe there would be a change in name but it was a surprise when he announced it to me in that way.3
The opera’s all-African American starring cast was made up of relative newcomers and musical veterans. Brown’s co-star, Todd Duncan, was on the music faculty at Howard University and had only made his operatic debut as Alfio in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana the year before agreeing to create the role of Porgy. Ruby Elzy, another Juilliard alumna, had performed in the chorus of the Broadway production Brown Buddies and a cinematic role in The Emperor Jones before Gershwin selected her for the role of Serena. Edward Matthews (Jake) had been a recitalist who had performed at Carnegie Hall and was in the orginal cast of Virgil Thomson’s opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. Abbie Mitchell (Clara) had performed on Vaudeville, Broadway and operatic stages for nearly 40 years, and John Bubbles (Sportin’ Life) had earned fame on Broadway and with the Ziegfeld Follies as a tap dancer and singer.
After a successful test run in Boston, Porgy and Bess opened at the Alvin Theatre in New York in October 1935. The original production garnered mixed reviews, though the performers received critical praise. Despite lukewarm financial success–only 124 performances–the opera was given a national tour. One incident stood out from the tour. The opera was scheduled for performance at the National Theater in Washington, DC. Brown and Duncan learned that the theater was segregated and refused to perform there until the policy was changed. After threatening to blacklist the singers, the management finally relented and set aside the policy for the week Porgy and Bess played there.
In a 1998 New York Times article, Brown reflected on the negative reactions to the opera:
Many blacks were profoundly unhappy. “My father was very displeased,” Ms. Brown said. “He thought that those were the old cliches of black people–dope peddlars, near-prostitutes; he especially didn’t like his daughter showing her legs and all that. I thought that DuBose Heyward and Gershwin had simply taken a part of life in Catfish Row, South Carolina, and rendered it superbly.”4
Porgy and Bess served as a springboard for Brown’s career. She returned to Broadway in the DuBose Heyward musicals Mamba’s Daughters and La Belle Hlne, and she was the soprano soloist in the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, presented on Armistice Day, 1941, by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. Brown briefly reprised her role in the 1942 revival of Porgy and Bess. She toured across the United States, presenting recitals from works by German composers such as Brahms and Schubert, to spiritual settings by Burleigh. Despite the notoriety she had earned, she still faced the same racial prejudices many of her contemporaries had experienced. In one instance, Brown was denied use of a concert hall in her hometown–a situation made more ironic by the fact that she had been invited to launch the Liberty ship, the S.S. Frederick Douglass, at a Baltimore shipyard just a few months earlier.
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.”5
Determined to escape the racism so prevalent in America, Brown travelled overseas in 1946. She performed in the Royal Opera (Copenhagen) production of Porgy and Bess–again co-starring with Todd Duncan, sang with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and gave numerous recitals throughout Europe. She was especially drawn to the relaxed lifestyle she found in Norway and decided to relocate there. She met and married her third husband, Thorleif Schjelderup, a Norwegian philosopher, journalist and Olympic skier, in May 1948. She raised her family–a daughter, Paula, from her second marriage, and Vaar, a daughter with Schjelderup–in Norway while concertizing and performing on the operatic stages of Europe, Asia, and South America. In 1950, she performed in the Gian Carlo Menotti operas, The Medium, The Telephone, in Norway. She followed this with the leading role in Menotti’s The Consul, for which she won the Music Critics Prize for best performance.
In 1953, Brown began a new career as a voice teacher and opera director–including a Norwegian production of Porgy and Bess in 1967–when her chronic asthmatic condition forced her to retire as a performer. She published an autobiography, Sang Fra Frossen Gren, in 1979. She returned to the United States in 1985 for the premiere of Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera in 1985–fifty years after the original production. In 1998, she participated in the Library of Congress commemoration of George Gershwin’s 100th birthday. That year, she also received the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America by the Peabody Institute, righting the wrong done by the school decades earlier.
Anne Wiggins Brown continues to reside in Norway and remains close to her daughters and numerous grandchildren. She was the subject of a 2004 film documentary by Nicole Franklin entitled, Gershwin, Norway, & The Artists’ Libido: A dialogue with Anne Brown.
When interviewer James Standifer asked Ms. Brown what advice she would give to young musicians, she replied:
I would say, “If you are going to be a musician, be a real one.” But how many young singers and artists of today are doing that? If there are many, all I can say is to keep on. You know, I have sung a Negro spiritual many times called “Hold On.” Hold on and don’t let anybody or anything stop you. Retain your integrity as a human being and as an artist and let the chips fall where they may.6
4Barry Singer. “On Hearing Her Sing, Gershwin Made ‘Porgy’ ‘Porgy and Bess'” New York Times, 29 March 1998, AR39.
6Anne Brown, interview by James A. Standifer, in “Reminiscences of Black Musicians.” American Music, Summer 1986, 197.
Musical excerpt: “Erlk,” from Showboat by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern. Excerpt from Songs of Free Men. Recorded by Paul Robeson, November 8, 1947. Columbia Masterworks/Sony Classical, 1997.
Musical excerpt: “Bess, You is My Woman” from Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin. Recorded by Anne Brown and Todd Duncan with Eva Jessye Choir, May 1940 and May 1942. MCA Classics, 1992.
The author wishes to thank David Weaver, author of Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy, for sharing images, program covers and biographical information collected during his book research.