OSLO (AP) - Anne Wiggins Brown, the African-American soprano who starred as the original Bess in George Gershwin’s landmark folk opera “Porgy and Bess” but saw her career limited by racial discrimination, has died at age 96.
“Porgy and Bess,” first performed in 1935, was based on DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy” about a crippled beggar in love with Bess and living in the fictional Catfish Row slum in Charleston, South Carolina. It was a rare look in its time at the lives of some African-Americans and has since become a popular opera standard.
Brown died Friday in Oslo, where she had lived since 1948 after complaining of racial discrimination in the United States.
“She died on Friday the 13th. That was always her lucky day, so it seemed almost appropriate,” her daughter Paula Schjelderup told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Brown is acknowledged as the inspiration that caused Gershwin to keep adding songs for her character in a process that turned “Porgy” into “Porgy and Bess.” Gershwin died in 1937, with Brown still in the role of Bess.
“Anne Brown was a pioneer for blacks in the opera,” said Nina Krohn, a music critic for Norwegian state broadcaster NRK.
She was born on Aug. 9, 1912 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father, Harry F. Brown, was a prosperous doctor and grandson of a slave and her mother, Mary Wiggins Brown, was a music lover of native American, African and European descent.
Brown started to sing when she was six, encouraged by her mother, who sang in their church choir, according to biographies. However, Brown was rejected by a Baltimore Catholic school and by her hometown music conservatory because they did not accept black students at the time.
She then studied at traditionally black Morgan College in Baltimore, now called Morgan State University. At 16, she was the first black vocalist admitted to New York City’s famed Juilliard School of Music, where she won the Margaret McGill prize as the school’s best female singer.
Brown was in her second year there when she read that Gershwin was working on an opera based on “Porgy” _ and she wanted a part.
“I remember how nervous I was when I called him,” Brown said in a 1984 interview broadcast by NRK. “But he greeted me with a big smile and my nervousness disappeared.”
She ended up persuading Gershwin to let her sing “Summertime” _ one of the composer’s most famous songs _ as she performed the part of Bess more than 600 times. Brown also performed many other roles on worldwide tours.
On one of those tours she met her third husband, Thorleif Schjelderup, a Norwegian ski-jumper who took a bronze medal in the 1948 Winter Olympics. She moved with him to Oslo in 1948, and remained there even though their marriage ended in divorce.
Brown was forced to give up her own singing career for health reasons in the 1950s, but began to teach, encouraging students that included Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann.
“I’ve lived a strange kind of life _ half black, half white, half isolated, half in the spotlight,” Brown said in a 1998 interview with the New York Times. “Many things that I wanted as a young person for my career were denied me because of my color.”
The Metropolitan Opera in New York did not even feature a black singer until Marian Anderson sang in 1955, decades after Brown began her opera career.
In 1998, Ms. Brown received the George Peabody Medal for her outstanding contribution to music from the Peabody Institute, the Baltimore conservatory that did not accept her decades earlier.
She is survived by two daughters, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, according to Schjelderup. Her funeral was set for Tuesday in Oslo.