A CONVERSATION WITH THE FIRST BESS — ANNE WIGGINS BROWN

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When Porgy and Bess opened on Octo­ber 10, 1935, at New York’s Alvin The­ater, the Bess was Anne Wig­gins Brown, a twenty-three-year-old clas­si­cally trained singer from Bal­ti­more. She went on to play the role in many dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tions and, after retir­ing as a singer, became a stage direc­tor and teacher. Since 1948 she has lived in Nor­way. Dur­ing a recent tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion from her home in Oslo, she explained how she first met George Gershwin.

I read in an after­noon news­pa­per in New York that he was writ­ing Porgy and that he was search­ing for singers, clas­si­cal as well as musical-comedy singers. So I wrote him a let­ter that same evening and asked for an audi­tion. A few days later I audi­tioned [at his apart­ment]. He met me at the door, stand­ing behind his but­ler. He shook my hand, and then a strange thing hap­pened. It was rain­ing that day and I had on some galoshes, and I took them off and was stand­ing there in the hall, look­ing under the coat rack to see where I should put the wet foot gear, when he said sud­denly, ‘What are you look­ing for?’ I had a mad notion and said, ‘I’m look­ing for your roller skates.’ He laughed and asked, ‘How do you know about my roller skates?’ I explained I had read about his roller skates being one of his favorite pos­ses­sions when he was young, and that I, too, had skated a lot. That broke the ice, and we became friends at once.

I sang songs of Schu­bert and Brahms, and, I think, a French aria, and he was impressed with my back­ground” — Wig­gins was a stu­dent at the Juil­liard School of Music at the time. “When I sang a Negro spir­i­tual he was very pleased that I could do all kinds of music.

After that he would call me and say, ‘I’ve just writ­ten so many pages of music. I’d like you to come down and sing.’ I lived on 99th Street at the time, and I would go down [to Gershwin’s apart­ment] and sing what­ever he had writ­ten — even if it was for the tenor or bari­tone,” Brown said with a laugh. “He would play the melody and I sang it, then he played the accom­pa­ni­ment and I sang. Prac­ti­cally every­thing. We would even sing the duets.”

Some arti­cles have claimed the com­poser was so taken with Brown’s artistry that he renamed his opera Porgy and Bess, from its orig­i­nal Porgy, in her honor. “Other peo­ple have said so, but I never said that,” Brown insisted. “Gersh­win told me that all three men, Sportin’ Life, Crown, and Porgy cir­cle around Bess, and that it was as impor­tant a role as Porgy. But he did not say to me, ‘I’m chang­ing it for you.’ And I have never said that.

[As a child Gersh­win] roller skated around Harlem and often found him­self in front of night­clubs in the day­time where black musi­cians were prac­tic­ing, and he told me he was fas­ci­nated by the rhythms and the har­monies. He used to stand out­side the door, or sit on the curb of the side­walk and lis­ten. He said the rhythms stayed in his head, he couldn’t get rid of them. I sus­pect that had a great influ­ence, par­tic­u­larly when he wrote Porgy and Bess.”

Did Gersh­win ever dis­cuss a desire to break down the bar­ri­ers between pop­u­lar music and clas­si­cal music? Brown thought for a moment. “He might have men­tioned that some­times. Very often after I had sung myself out, we would sit and talk about things like that. He also played music for me on his organ — jazz and musi­cal com­edy music. Mostly his own music, but some­times pop­u­lar music by other com­posers. Once he played some­thing clas­si­cal by a French com­poser. That was a thrill for me as a young stu­dent. There was no hanky-panky, but still my hus­band was very jeal­ous and even threat­ened to give me orders to stay home. I just laughed.

As a com­poser, Gersh­win really knew what he was doing. He was a genius. He was a very com­pli­cated man, but he did have a side that was hum­ble. He would ask, ‘Do you like that? Do you think that’s right? Is this too high for a bari­tone?’ Things like that. He was very open and honest.”

What comes to mind when Anne Brown thinks of Gersh­win today? “Amer­i­can. He was really an exam­ple of an Amer­i­can. Com­ing from a com­pletely dif­fer­ent back­ground, Jew­ish and Russ­ian, and hav­ing been brought up in New York, then devel­op­ing his tal­ent along both clas­si­cal and jazz lines, that’s some­thing typ­i­cally Amer­i­can. I think he should be hailed as, prob­a­bly, the Amer­i­can composer.

Before he went to Hol­ly­wood he told me, ‘I’m going to write another opera, and I’m going to write it for you and Todd [Dun­can, the first Porgy.]’ I was sit­ting in my liv­ing room when the radio blared out the news that George Gersh­win was dead. I was numb. Not long before that he had writ­ten me a let­ter from Hol­ly­wood say­ing that he was com­ing back to New York, and he was going to write some music. I had the feel­ing he meant it was for me. It was such a ter­ri­ble loss.”

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony in con­nec­tion with “George Gersh­win, Amer­i­can Nat­ural,” and is used here by permission.

Anne Wig­gins Brown died in 2009 at the age of 96.