Theater; On Hearing Her Sing, Gershwin Made ‘Porgy’ ‘Porgy and Bess’

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2012-09-16 23:37Z by Steven

Theater; On Hearing Her Sing, Gershwin Made ‘Porgy’ ‘Porgy and Bess’

The New York Times

Barry Singer

In his tragically short life, George Gershwin knew only one Bess, and this bittersweet fact has framed Anne Wiggins Brown’s life. She was that Bess in the original production of Gershwin’s operatic masterwork based on Dorothy and DuBose Heyward’s theatrical adaptation of Heyward’s novel “Porgy.”

More than 60 years have passed since Gershwin’s death in 1937 from a brain tumor. Though singers of every race and nationality have by now assayed the role, Ms. Brown will always be the first, the Bess Gershwin himself chose in 1934.

“Bess is slender but sinewy; very black,” wrote the Heywards. “She flaunts a typical but debased Negro beauty.”

At 85, Ms. Brown still possesses the vibrancy and unaffected elegance that must have first inspired Gershwin. She is not, however, “very black.” For Gershwin that was never a problem. “I don’t see why my Bess shouldn’t be cafe au lait,” he told Ms. Brown before offering her the role.

Yet color has haunted Ms. Brown’s career. In the segregated America of the 1930’s and 40’s, where could a classically trained African-American soprano hope to have a career? The only answer was abroad…

…She was born Annie Wiggins Brown in Baltimore in 1912. Her father, a doctor, was the grandson of a slave; her mother’s parents were of Scottish-Irish, black and Cherokee Indian descent. At 23, Ms. Brown was introduced to the world as an opera singer and an African-American in “Porgy and Bess.” Thirteen years later, in 1948, after more than a decade of concertizing and frustrated ambitions, she left America for Norway…

…”To put it bluntly, I was fed up with racial prejudice,” she explained, her English accented with Scandinavian inflections. “Though there is no place on earth without prejudice. In fact, a French journalist wrote an article during one of my tours there asking: ‘Why does she say she is colored? She’s as white as any singer. It’s just a trick to get people interested.’ Can you imagine? Of course I was advertised as ‘a Negro soprano.’ What is ‘a Negro soprano’?”…

…When the show’s closing notice was posted after 124 performances, the producers announced a tour with stints in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Chicago, to be followed by a week at the National Theater in Washington. Ms. Brown was livid. The National Theater, she knew, was a segregated house.

“I told them: ‘I will not sing at the National. If my mother, my father, my friends, if black people cannot come hear me sing, then count me out.’ I remember Gershwin saying to me, ‘You’re not going to sing?’ And I said to him, ‘I can’t sing!’ ”

After protracted negotiations, the National, for one week only, became an integrated house. When the curtain came down on the final performance of “Porgy and Bess,” segregation was reinstated…

Read the entire article here.

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