« One more musical salute to the Baltimore Opera | Main | Annapolis Opera offers passionate 'Cav/Pag' »

March 14, 2009

Anne Wiggins Brown, Baltimore native and Gershwin's first Bess, dies at 96

Just got word that Anne Wiggins Brown, who created the role of Bess in Gershwin's groundbreaking opera Porgy and Bess in 1935, died Friday in Norway at the age of 96. As a student at Juilliard, the Baltimore-born soprano sent a letter to Gershwin requesting an audtion and was hired on the spot. She went to enjoy a successful career, especially in Europe.

Here are some reminiscences of Miss Brown that I received via email from her friend and former student, Kitti Homme:

She was a fantastic human being - incredibly intelligent, talented (also a great pianist!), humble, kind -- and a loyal friend. I consider myself very lucky to have known her all these years. And I feel really good about having visited her as recently as in January this year ... Two years ago, at the age of 94, she sat down at the grand piano and played Chopin, Beethoven and Gershwin for us -- for at least half an hour. She kept saying: "I can't play!" But it sounded fabulous to our ears. She was a perfectionist until the end ... She made a huge contribution to American opera. Fresh out of New York's Juilliard School of Music, at the age of 22, when there was hardly any future for African Americans in opera or classical music, she starred as Bess in George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess ... Gershwin was blown away by her when she came to his flat to audition ... After hearing Anne sing works by Brahms, Schubert, and Massenet, Gershwin asked her to sing ...

a spiritual. After hearing her sing "City Called Heaven," Gershwin knew he had found the perfect Bess. From that time until the opera was finished, Anne visited the composer every week, going through the music, singing all the parts -- singing duets with Gershwin or trios with other members of the cast.

Anne and George Gershwin remained close friends until he died an untimely death only two years later. She has a big post card collection and letters he wrote her from his trips and from California ... Gershwin also changed the name of the opera from "Porgy" to "Porgy and Bess" to give her character more prominence ...

Anne went on to touring solo all over Europe, then settling in Norway after she fell in love with a Norwegian Olympic skier, and teaching voice to hundreds of talented singers and actors. She was always active and busy with music and culture, directing operas in Norway and elsewhere in Europe. She loved the Norwegian winters, but also Italy, where she had a summer home ...

In 1998, she participated in the Library of Congress commemoration of George Gershwins' 100th birthday. That year, she also received the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America by Peabody Institute ...

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:20 PM | | Comments (2)


Here's one last rose at your feet, Ms Brown. Thanks.

For those who always complain abount AfroAmericans wanting to know their history, this is a perfect example. We want to know of the contributions and sacrifices that our people have made. There are so many circumstances, big and small that were encumberances to our successes.
Thanks for the tribute to another great AfroAmerican who in spite of great odds became a credit to the human race. And thanks to Mr Gershwin for affording her the opportunity to display her great talent.


Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected