Soprano Anne Brown, seen in 1944, starred in the original production of George Gershwin’s folk opera “Porgy and Bess.”
Anne Brown

Gershwin's singer 'Bess'

Anne Brown, 96, the soprano who originated the role of Bess in George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," died Friday in Oslo, Norway.

Brown starred in the original production of the folk opera. Gershwin was so impressed with her performance that he changed the original name of the production from "Porgy" to "Porgy and Bess" so Brown would receive equal billing with baritone Todd Duncan. Gershwin also rewrote the part of Bess to include her in the performance of the song "Summertime." Her performance was praised by critics. Writing in the New York Times, Olin Downes called it "a high point of interpretation."

A native of Baltimore, Brown attended Morgan College but was rejected in her attempt to enroll at the Peabody Institute, a leading conservatory in her hometown. She instead applied to what is now known as the Juilliard School, where she earned an undergraduate degree. She was in her second year of graduate studies at Juilliard when she auditioned with Gershwin.

Although she earned awards at Juilliard as the best singer, she was unable to find work in leading America opera companies because of the racial prejudice of the era. But she was popular in Europe and South America. Brown eventually moved to Oslo and became a Norwegian citizen.

Her singing career was curtailed by a lung illness in the 1950s after which she taught voice to a range of students, including actress Liv Ulmann.

In 1998, she received the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to American Music from the Peabody Institute, a division of Johns Hopkins University.

-- times staff and wire reports