Anne BrownApr 24th, 2013 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1912-2009 – Anne Brown navigated a difficult path through the segregated music and theater communities of her time to become one of its outstanding soprano singers. She is best known for her performances as Bess in the classic George Gershwin opera of black southern life, Porgy and Bess.
Brown was born in 1912 in Baltimore, Maryland, the first of four daughters of prominent physician Harry Brown, the grandson of a slave, and his wife, Mary. Music was part of the family’s history: her paternal grandmother, maternal grandfather, and mother were all accomplished singers. Brown’s own musical ability appeared very early, and family legend held that she could sing a scale by the age of nine months. Her initial encounters with discrimination also began early, as she was denied admission to a local Catholic school because of her race. Instead, she attended Frederick Douglass High School, which had a strong music program. She went on to Baltimore’s Morgan College (now Morgan State University), a historically black institution, but was rejected on racial grounds by the prestigious Peabody Institute conservatory.
With the encouragement of a Baltimore high society leader, Brown then auditioned at New York’s Juilliard School, and became the first black vocalist to be accepted at the age of 16. She married a fellow student during this period, but soon divorced. After four years of study at Juilliard, she was awarded the Margaret McGill scholarship for the school’s best female singer, and continued with a program of graduate work.
During her second year as a graduate student, in 1933, Brown became aware that the composer George Gershwin was planning an opera set in an African American community in South Carolina. She took the initiative of writing to Gershwin expressing her interest and requesting an audition, which resulted in an invitation to meet Gershwin and sing for him. This became a weekly event, with Brown singing music from all the roles in the opera for and with him, as Gershwin was composing. In the course of this work, the role of Bess evolved from the secondary character found in Porgy, the underlying novel and play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, to become a full leading role as expressed in the name of the opera. Specific changes were also made to suit Brown’s exceptional voice and interpretation, including moving the classic song “Summertime” from a subordinate character, Clara, to Bess. As for the change of title, Gershwin reportedly said to Brown: “Well, there’s Tristan and Isolde, there’s Romeo and Juliet, why not Porgy and Bess?”
But while the novel, published in 1925, and the play, which opened on Broadway in 1927 and ran for 367 performances, were both successful, a “folk opera” based on African American themes was an untested artistic exploration by Gershwin and his lyricist brother, Ira.
A Personal Role
On September 30, 1935, Brown sang Bess in the show’s first public performance at Boston’s Colonial Theatre. It soon debuted on Broadway at the Alvin Theater, on October 10 of that year, directed by Rouben Mamolian, who had also directed the play. Critical response was mixed, with some confusion as to whether the work was an opera, a musical, or an entirely new form, and negative reactions toward what was seen as “negro stereotypes” in the show. That sentiment was, unfortunately, shared by Brown’s father, but she herself felt that the characterizations were faithful depictions of a time, place, and culture. Brown’s performance was singled out by The New York Times’ reviewer and unanimously praised by critics, and the show ran for 124 performances on Broadway.
Once again, the shadow of racial discrimination trailed Brown’s success. A national tour in the spring of 1936, which went from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and then to Chicago, ended in Washington, DC. at the segregated National Theatre. The cast, led by Todd Duncan in the role of Porgy, protested, and Brown refused to sing, saying that if her friends, family, and fellow African Americans were not allowed to hear her, she wouldn’t perform. Theater management relented, and on March 21, Porgy and Bess became the first performance of any type presented to an integrated audience at the National Theatre. Sadly, the segregationist policy was immediately reinstated thereafter.
Following her initial work with the show, Brown continued performing on Broadway in several productions, including Pins and Needles, a musical review of 1937, and the play Mamba’s Daughters in 1939. She also returned to the role of Bess in several on-stage revivals, and for a recording entitled Selections from George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess. Then in 1942, she began a European concert tour that would last until 1948, partly in response to continued racial discrimination in the United States. She performed to great acclaim as a solo classical artist, singing works from the traditional vocal repertory by such composers as Mahler, Schubert, and Brahms, which enhanced her reputation and reception as a serious artist in a way she never achieved at home.
At the end of the tour, in 1948, Brown decided to take up residence in Oslo, Norway. There, she married an Olympic medal-winning skier, Thorlief Schjelderup, and became a Norwegian citizen. This was her third marriage, and soon ended in divorce like the others. A daughter born to them was Brown’s second child, with one daughter from her second marriage. She continued singing in concerts and recitals until the early 1950s, and appeared in several operas, but her performing career was curtailed by the onset of asthma. After 1953, Brown worked as a successful vocal instructor, and also mounted operas in Europe. She was awarded the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America by the Peabody Institute in 1998, which ironically had refused her admission for study, and the Norway Council of Cultures Honorary Award in 2000. She remained in Oslo up to her death in 2009, and is remembered as the originator of one of the most famous and best-loved characters in African American cultural history.