Anne Wiggins Brown, Gershwin's first 'Bess'

March 12, 1998|By Elizabeth Schaaf

DURING Women's History Month, it's easy to list famous women, but many lesser-known ones who have had a significant impact on our culture are often forgotten. One such person with Baltimore roots is Anne Wiggins Brown, a product of Douglass High School and a Presstman Street rowhouse, who with her classically trained voice helped pave the way for African-Americans on Broadway in the 1930s.

It was Ms. Brown who put "Bess" into the title of the opera George Gershwin intended to call "Porgy." Gershwin was well into writing the music for an opera based on DuBose Heyward's novel "Porgy" when Ms. Brown, still a student at the Juilliard School and hoping to land a role in the new work, wrote to the composer asking for an audition.

After hearing her sing the spiritual "City Called Heaven," Gershwin knew he had found the perfect Bess. So perfect, in fact, that he expanded the role.

The hauntingly beautiful "Summertime," which was to have been sung by another character, was given to Bess. Then Gershwin surprised Ms. Brown with the news that he had decided to call his work "Porgy and Bess," so she would share star billing with Todd Duncan, an outstanding baritone who died Feb. 28.

Ms. Brown, a soprano, was in many ways ill-suited for the role of Bess. At first, Gershwin worried that her complexion was too light to play a black woman on stage. Also, he wondered if the very proper Ms. Brown was ideally suited to be Bess, who was little more than a streetwalker.

Ms. Brown admitted that mastering the role had been a challenge: "I tried to get under the skin of the role of Bess, which was very difficult for me. I was young and came from a terribly conservative middle-class black family."

Ms. Brown was the first of four daughters born to Harry Frances Brown, a prominent physician, and Mary Allen Wiggins Brown.

Ms. Brown maintains she always knew she would be a performer. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an actress but was discouraged by the prospect of a lifetime of roles as a domestic -- the only parts offered to black women then. Music offered brighter prospects for Ms. Brown, who enjoyed playing her family's grand piano and listening to classical music records.

Ms. Brown was 12 when she entered Douglass High School. The faculty at Douglass was superb, and the music program at the school produced many fine musicians. Ms. Brown says Douglass was the only place where she experienced only positive effects from racial segregation. There, she studied music with the well-known teacher W. Llewellyn Wilson, and she had leading roles in the musical comedies that were mounted at Douglass every year.

Where to turn after Douglass was another matter. The Peabody Conservatory, with its color bar firmly in place, would not admit her. Constance Black, wife of Harry Black, then chairman of the board of The Baltimore Sun, who had engaged Ms. Brown to perform on numerous occasions at her Guilford home, encouraged Ms. Brown to audition for Juilliard, where she was accepted.

Ms. Brown was 23 years old when "Porgy and Bess" premiered at the Alvin Theatre in New York on Oct. 10, 1935. Gershwin's opera received mixed reviews, but the critics were unanimous in their praise for Ms. Brown and Duncan.

The opera had a run of 123 performances before it went on tour. Ms. Brown, who had become a strong civil rights advocate, was asked to endure the humiliation of performing at the National Theater in Washington, which barred members of her own race.

Ms. Brown led the cast in a protest, threatening to close the show. The management of the theater backed down, dropping the color bar for the run of "Porgy and Bess."

In 1942, she returned to Broadway in a new production of "Porgy and Bess" -- this time a critical and financial success. At the end of the run, she was offered the lead in Oscar Hammerstein's musical "Carmen Jones."

Ms. Brown chose instead to embark on her first concert tour. Her U.S. performances were a triumph. On a post-World War II European tour, she was greeted by sold-out houses; the critics loved her.

Since her 1948 marriage to champion skier Thorleif Schjelderup, she has made her home in Norway. Now in her 80s, Anne Brown is working on the U.S. edition of her autobiography.

On May 21, Ms. Brown plans to return to Baltimore for the first time in many years to receive the Peabody Institute's George Peabody Medal for outstanding contributions to music in America.

That's something else for the history books.

Elizabeth Schaaf is the archivist and curator at the Peabody Institute.

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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