Anne Brown, a penetratingly pure soprano who literally put the Bess in Porgy and Bess by inspiring George Gershwin to expand the character's part in a folk opera that was originally to be called "Porgy," died last Friday in Oslo, Norway. She was 96.
Porgy and Bess burst onto the American scene in 1935 as a sophisticated musical treatment of poor blacks.
Drawing from the gritty experiences of South Carolina blacks, the play introduced songs that came to be lodged in American culture.
Brown was the first person Gershwin heard singing the part of Bess, a morally challenged, but achingly human character.
As he composed the opera, often with the young Brown at his side, he added more and more music for her.
Brown's voice was also the first Gershwin heard singing several other parts in the opera.
Porgy and Bess went on to be produced on countless amateur and professional stages all over the world.
Because Gershwin died at 38 in 1937, Brown was the only Bess he ever knew.
Her own story has an operatic flavour. Brown grew up in a protective middle-class home and was accepted at Juilliard, the internationally renowned school for the arts in New York. She was lauded for her talent, but as a child she was rejected from a Baltimore Catholic primary school because she was African-American.
Brown ultimately moved to Oslo. "To put it bluntly, I was fed up with racial prejudice," she said in an interview with The New York Times in 1998.
Anne Wiggins Brown was born in Baltimore on August 9 1912. Her father, a surgeon, was the grandson of slaves and her mother was a music lover who played the piano daily.
She performed extensively in Europe, South America and elsewhere and taught voice for many years at a drama school in Oslo. Her singing career was cut short by a lung illness in the 1950s.
In 1948 she settled in Oslo and married Thorleif Schjelderup. The marriage ended in divorce, as did two previous marriages.
Brown is survived by two daughters, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.