She got plenty of nuttin'

She got plenty of nuttin'


norman lebrecht

March 18, 2009

Apart from a newsbreak by an alert Tim Smith in her native Baltimore and a low-cal obit in the New York Times, America allowed the passing of its first operatic heroine to pass unnoticed.

Anne Brown created the role of Bess in George Gershwin’s opera not just by singing the opening night in 1935 but by sitting on the composer’s piano stool, prodding him to give her more to sing. Porgy and Bess is, by general consent, the first American opera. Anne Brown was the definitive Bess.

She continued to sing the role with the original cast until 1948, touring many parts of the US and appearing in a Gershwin biopic before the onslaught of racial prejudice led her to seek a better life in Norway. Stanley Henig reminds me that an original-cast recording of Porgy was taken on Decca and is still around on CD. Anne Brown is dead: you don’t have to believe that if you don’t want to.

She helped form what we think of as American heritage. Yet no part of US culture has stopped to pay her homage. No opera curtain has been held so that Peter Gelb or somesuch could share an Anne Brown moment with the audience. No music director – even in Baltimore – has revised a concert program to include a Bess tribute. And no-one in the White House has  doffed his hat to a woman who showed the world how Black Americans lived. Has nobody told the President? 


  • I knew Anne Brown. We met following my recital in the 1990 Bergen Festspillene in Norway. Our group went to the Hotel Norge for a post-concert dinner. She never let on who she was. One of her friends asked, “Do you know who she is? That is Anne Brown–Gershwin’s first ‘Bess!'” I was stunned. We sat next to each other and talked about music, etc. To think she attended my recital–I was indeed honored. I was told the great story of how she met Gershwin after reading an advertisement in the newspaper for auditions for the new “Porgy” (not quite yet ‘and Bess’)and Gershwin wrote more and more after giving her the part. This led him to title the legendary masterpiece, “Porgy AND Bess”. Anne invited me to stay in her Oslo apartment anytime when I visited the city–and I did so the following year. After a breakfast, I sat at the piano, and she entered the room. I played some music of Gershwin, and she said, ‘George would have liked how you play his music’. I then asked if she might share alittle ‘Summertime’, and she did. That was a wonderful moment in my life. Yes, Anne Brown was a very important figure in the Gershwin history–without her, Bess would not be what she became.