On September 30, 1935, soprano Anne Wiggins Brown stepped onto the stage at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. It was the much anticipated world premiere of George Gershwin’s new “folk opera,” and a big moment for the young vocalist. Far from just a lucky break, this was a major opportunity that Brown had carved out for herself, the culmination of years of work. For the past two years, she had spent many long days completing her classes as a graduate student at the Juilliard School (she had been the first African American student admitted there after auditioning at age 15), and then traveling down to meet with Gershwin and work on new material for his show. In a bold moment, the twenty-one year old had written the composer a letter after reading news of his new project. Once he heard her sing, Gershwin not only included her in his production, but in his writing process, eventually developing her character into a co-lead and a career-defining role for Brown. And thus the story of DuBose Heyward’s Porgy became known to the world as Porgy and Bess.
Anne Wiggins Brown was born in Baltimore, Maryland on August 9, 1912. Her musical career spanned five decades, during which time she toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe. In addition to her Broadway career, Brown was an accomplished radio and concert singer. Following what she called her “Gershwin period,” she studied for several years with German soprano Lotte Lehmann, who at that time was living in Santa Barbara, California. Brown toured the world as a concert singer and recitalist, performing in Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Milan, Lisbon, and Oslo on her first European tour. The European press and audiences welcomed her with open arms, praising her “unfailing and sure musical instinct” and “impressive voice.” As opportunities for her continued to expand globally, however, Brown could not help but feel her limitations at home. In 1948, weary of dealing with the racial prejudices in the United State, Brown moved to Oslo, where she attained Norwegian citizenship.
Brown flourished in Europe, though she did note, “there is no place on earth without prejudice.” With Europe as her base of operations, however, she was able to study with musical masters in Paris, Italy, and London. “Perhaps I missed a lot by being away from my native home, but I gained so much living in Europe,” she would say later in her life. For more than twenty-five years, she continued to tour internationally, singing concerts and performing in operas. This changed in 1955, when her asthma worsened to the point that she was no longer able to perform, cutting her performance career short. “One certainly can’t sing if one cannot breathe,” she explained.
Ms. Brown donated her papers to the Amistad Research Center in 1991, after years of friendly correspondence with Amistad’s founding director Clifton Johnson. By that point, she had already embarked upon a successful second career as a vocal teacher in Oslo (Brown trained operatic soprano Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz and Bergman muse Liv Ullmann, among others). In a 1990 letter to Dr. Johnson, Brown discussed an upcoming move, saying that she had “very definite ideas about where and how I want to live for the remaining years of my life, (an apartment which esthetically [sic] pleases me and where the neighbours will not object to hearing the voices of my vocal students).” She retained a great deal of affection for her home country, and continued to visit when she could. In a 1991 visit to New Orleans to deposit her papers with the Center, Brown was honored with a key to the city.
The honors continued, and in 1998, the Peabody Conservatory, which had denied Brown admission seventy years earlier, awarded her the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America at the age of 85. In her acceptance speech (which can be found in her papers, complete with handwritten edits), Brown reflected on her life and career. “It has been said that when one is old – very old, that is – one remembers best the events which occurred when one was 5 years old, or 6 – in their youth, and NOT that which took place last week or even yesterday,” she told the audience. “I can assure you that the saying is true. The memories of my childhood dreams are very vivid. Among them or perhaps foremost was the dream to become an ‘actor,’ because for me, to sing was to act with the voice. And I still believe that.”
Brown passed away in 2009. After a lifetime of important work both on stage and nurturing new talent, Porgy and Bess endures as Brown’s most memorable role. She performed the part roughly five hundred times over the years, first in the original run, and then again in the 1942 Broadway revival. Though George Gershwin did not live to see this revival – sadly, he passed away from a brain tumor at age 38 – his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, was sure to let the singer know how much she was appreciated for her work in the creation of the role. In a telegram from Brown’s papers dated March 9, 1942, Gershwin writes, “I regret not being able to attend the dinner in honor of you Anne [Brown] but here are my warmest greetings to a great and splendid artist and artist my brother was proud to have sing his music. And I feel that way about the words, too.”
For more on the Anne Wiggins Brown Papers at Amistad, read here.
Images from the Anne Wiggins Brown Papers and the Carol Brice Papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.