Anne Brown: She Put The Bess In 'Porgy And Bess' The Baltimore-born singer dazzled George Gershwin so much that he upsized her character — and added her name to the show's title. News circulated this week of Brown's death in Norway; she was 96.
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Anne Brown: She Put The Bess In 'Porgy And Bess'

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Anne Brown: She Put The Bess In 'Porgy And Bess'

Anne Brown: She Put The Bess In 'Porgy And Bess'

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Composer George Gershwin heard only one Bess sing in "Porgy and Bess." This week the opera world learned that it had lost her. Soprano Anne Brown died on Friday in Norway. She was 96. Bob Mondello says the singer's life was filled with operatic moments both on and off the stage.

BOB MONDELLO: For audiences in 1935, Anne Brown must have seemed to own the role of Bess. At a time when there were precious few classically trained black singers, this newcomer was a revelation.

(Soundbite of opera, "Porgy and Bess")

MONDELLO: Brown was 23 when she stood before George Gershwin, auditioning for the part of Bess with the Schubert aria she was studying at Juilliard. But he wanted to hear her sing a Negro spiritual. After letting him know that she was offended, she sang "City Called Heaven" without accompaniment, and Gershwin knew he had his leading lady.

Except that his folk opera didn't have a leading-lady part. In the DuBose Heyward novel called "Porgy," Bess is just one of many poor black characters, but Gershwin was so taken with Anne Brown that he kept adding material for her.

(Soundbite of opera, "Porgy and Bess")

MONDELLO: One day after a rehearsal, Gershwin sat Brown down and told her that the show she was in would no longer be called just "Porgy." Anne Brown had literally put the Bess in "Porgy and Bess." There was still one thing she wanted, though, and after much cajoling, she got it: a reprise of a lullaby sung by another character called "Summertime."

(Soundbite of song, "Summertime")

MONDELLO: In October of 1935, "Porgy and Bess" opened in New York to general confusion from the critics. They weren't sure whether they had seen an opera or a musical, and either way, they were mixed on it. Still, they liked Brown and Todd Duncan, who played Porgy. So the company headed out on tour, a sometimes rocky tour.

When Brown discovered that they'd been booked into a segregated auditorium in the nation's capital, she flat out refused to perform there. Todd Duncan backed her, the management backed down, and for that one week in 1936, blacks and whites sat together at Washington's National Theater.

(Soundbite of opera, "Porgy and Bess")

MONDELLO: Though Brown's operatic career boomed, she became so fed up with racial prejudice in the U.S. that she relocated to Europe, where she married an Olympic skier and raised a family in Oslo.

Chronic asthma ended her singing career in the 1950s, but she taught music and directed operas for decades after that, including a Norwegian production of "Porgy and Bess" done with white singers in blackface because Norway simply didn't have any black opera singers.

And Brown remained philosophical about that sort of thing well into her 90s, sometimes offering interviewers a line that sounded a lot like something Bess might say: We tough girls tough it out.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of opera, "Porgy and Bess")

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