Jonathan Palevsky, host of Opera Preview” on WBJC-FM, recently played original Decca recordings that featured Anne Wiggins Brown, a Baltimore native and soprano who played the role of Bess in the original production of George Gershwin’s folk opera “Porgy and Bess.”
Brown was born in Baltimore, in either 1912 or 1915, there is some speculation as to the exact date. She was the eldest of four daughters of Dr. Harry Francis Brown, a physician who was a grandson of slaves, and her mother, Mary Allen Wiggins, whose parents were of Scottish-Irish, Black and Cherokee descent.
The path that would eventually take Brown to Broadway and acclaim began at the old Frederick Douglass High School on Dolphin Street, where she was a student of the legendary music teacher W. Llewellyn Wilson, who also had instructed Cab Calloway.
During her years at Douglass, Brown played leading roles in both plays and musicals that were staged and directed by Wilson.
“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,” Elizabeth Schaaf, who had been an archivist and curator at the Peabody Institute, wrote in a 1998 Baltimore Sun article.
“Music offered brighter prospects for Ms. Brown, who enjoyed playing her family’s grand piano and listening to classical music recordings,” Schaaf continued.
When Brown applied to study at Peabody, she was denied entrance because she was African American, and at the urging of a Baltimore friend, applied to The Juilliard School in New York. At 16, Brown became the first Black vocalist to be admitted to the prestigious school.
In a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Brown said, “We tough girls tough it out. I’ve lived a strange kind of life — half Black, half white, half isolated, half in the spotlight. Many things I wanted as a young person for my career were denied because of my color.”
One day while reading a newspaper, Brown read an article about Gershwin’s adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy.”
Brown wrote to Gershwin asking for an audition. Several days later he called and invited her to come and sing for him. After performing several classical pieces and “The Man I Love,” which the Gershwin brothers had written, Gershwin asked her to sing a spiritual.
Offended at the suggestion that Black people could only sing spirituals, Brown relayed to Gershwin her thoughts on the matter in no uncertain terms.
“He just looked at me. He didn’t say anything or do anything at all; he didn’t appear angry or disturbed. But I saw that he understood my reaction,” she told The Times.
A sense of calm washed over her and she did want to perform a spiritual, “City Called Heaven.” So moved by her melancholy interpretation, Gershwin arose from his chair, hugged Brown, and realized he had found his Bess.
“Porgy and Bess” opened on Oct. 10, 1935, at New York City’s Alvin Theatre with Todd Duncan in the role of Porgy, and while critics weren’t wild in their reviews, both actors received praise for their performances.
It was Brown who brought another Baltimorean into the cast after Johnny Bubbles left the role of Sportin’ Life. Gershwin, at her suggestion, hired Avon Long, a dancer and singer, who had been at Douglass with Brown.
But prejudice was always in the background. When the show went on tour to National Theatre in Washington, it was Brown who led a cast protest and informed Gershwin she would not perform unless the National modified its policy that kept out Black patrons. In the end, the theater agreed to drop its policy for the one-week run of the show.
Brown was barred from performing at Baltimore’s Lyric in 1943, which also had a segregated policy, and that same year, she came to the city to launch the Liberty ship Frederick Douglass at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard, where she noted many of the workers were African Americans.
“Democracy belongs to all of us, and we must work for it together, and in harmony,” she told The Sun at the time.
She married Thorleif Schjelderup, a Norwegian Olympic skater, and resided in Oslo, where she taught.