Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Brown has sung contralto roles ranging from Fricka in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” to the Mother in Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” But her signature role — one that she’s taken around the world, from Amsterdam and Brussels to the Hollywood Bowl — is that of Catfish Row cook-shop owner Maria in “Porgy and Bess.” She’s singing it again Sept. 27-29 at Symphony Hall, in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert performances of the George Gershwin opera.
‘[The character Maria in “Porgy and Bess”] reminds me so much of my mom, my aunts, and a lot of the women I grew up with in Memphis.’
Q. How did you come to specialize in this particular not-quite-starring role?
A. The first time I did it was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I think it was about 2001, 2002. I had already begun to talk to a few of my friends who’d done the role. But once I did it in Tulsa, it took off, and I began to get other engagements, and the more I began to do Maria, the more specialized I became doing it. So I’ve done it in Tulsa, I’ve done it for Washington National Opera, I’ve done it overseas. It’s become my calling card.
Q. What makes Maria special as a singing role?
A. For me as a contralto, her notes are quite low. But I can jazz it up, I can blues it up, and at the same time I can still be classical.
Q. And as an acting role?
A. She’s everyone’s mom. She’s everyone’s support in the community. Some people call her the mayor of the community. I think of her as that compassionate woman that’s in almost every black neighborhood, as the woman who sits on the porch and watches all the kids play. She’s also an entrepreneur, she owns her own shop. And I like to think of her as one who’s helped other people in the community set up their own businesses. She’s been around for a lot of births and has seen a lot of people die. She’s very strong, very committed, loving — I’d say she’s a person that loves or hates. I believe she loves everyone in the community but hates Sporting Life. I want to say she hates him because she sees more in him, yet he tends to just want to be this thug, this dope dealer, this pusher of illegal stuff. But for me she reminds me so much of my mom, my aunts, and a lot of the women I grew up with in Memphis.
Q. Does she remind you of yourself?
A. Yes, the older I get. [Laugh.] Even when I was a kid, I was always the one the teacher would say to mind the room while she stepped out. I always wanted to see the best of everyone.
Q. Is “Porgy and Bess” an opera or a musical?
A. It’s an opera. The vocal lines in the score — particularly for Porgy, Bess, Clara, and Maria — are better when they’re operatically sung. I think it takes away from the work when it’s sung in that very beltish Broadway style. Sporting Life and parts of Maria can be a little bit more crossover, but to me it’s musically written as an opera, and I believe that was the intent of the Gershwins.
Q. George Gershwin insisted on an all-black cast. How do you feel about that?
A. I want this opera to remain ours. There are many operas that there is no way a black person can be in it, simply because of its history. Well, this is ours. It is hard for any other race to understand the Gullah people on Catfish Row, or Cabbage Row, as it was originally called. It’s for us, the way we worship, the way we party, the way we play on the streets. It is something specific to us when we are in Serena’s home getting ready to mourn and bury her husband and spend days there trying to raise money just to bury him. The way we wail, the way we sing, the way we impassion God and all of the things of God — that’s what makes “Porgy and Bess” specific to us.
Correction: Because of incorrect information given to the Globe, the cities in which singer Gwendolyn Brown has performed the role of Maria in “Porgy and Bess” were misidentified in an earlier version of this story. Among the places she has sung the role are Tulsa and New Orleans, and with the Washington National Opera.