Gershwin’s orginal Bess, Anne Brown dies in Oslo

Anne Wiggins Brown, the African-American soprano who starred as the original Bess in George Gershwin’s landmark folk opera “Porgy and Bess”, has died in Oslo, at age 96.

The Norwegian-American Opera singer Anne Wiggins Brown died Friday March 13, she was 96. Photo: NRK.

Norwegian-American Opera Singer Anne Wiggins Brown died Friday March 13, She was 96 years old. Photo: NRK.

Brown had lived in the Norwegian capital since 1948 after complaining of racial discrimination in the United States. “She died on Friday the 13th. That was always her lucky day, so it seemed almost appropriate,” her daughter Paula Schjelderup told The Associated Press on March 18.

Brown is recognized as the inspiration that caused the American composer and pianist Gershwin to keep adding songs for her character in a process that turned the original “Porgy” into “Porgy and Bess.” 

On tour she met her third husband, Thorleif Schjelderup, a Norwegian ski-jumper who took a bronze medal in the 1948 Winter Olympics. She moved with him to Oslo in 1948, and remained there even though their marriage ended in divorce.

“Anne Brown was a pioneer for blacks in the opera,” said Nina Krohn, a music critic for Norwegian state broadcaster NRK

She was born on Aug. 9, 1912 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father, Harry F. Brown, was a prosperous doctor and grandson of a slave and her mother, Mary Wiggins Brown, was a music lover of native American, African and European descent, reports AP.

Brown was forced to give up her own singing career for health reasons in the 1950s, but began to teach, encouraging students that included Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann.

“I’ve lived a strange kind of life — half black, half white, half isolated, half in the spotlight,” Brown said in a 1998 interview with the New York Times. “Many things that I wanted as a young person for my career were denied me because of my color.”

She is survived by two daughters, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

To listen to radio interview with Brown on NRK, click here.

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