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?