Mattiwilda Dobbs: Opera singer defied odds and stereotypes

ExploreMattiwilda Dobbs began defying the odds early in her life.

She grew up in a prominent African-American family in Atlanta (her father was civic leader John Wesley Dobbs) and was one of six girls in the household to graduate from Spelman College.

She and her sisters studied the piano when they were young. Around 7, Dobbs also became interested in opera after hearing Lillian Evans, later known as Lillian Evanti, sing.

Evanti was one of the first African-American women to gain international acclaim as an opera singer.

“She was thunderstruck,” said her sister, Dr. June Dobbs Butts. “Most of the children laughed , but Mattiwilda said, ‘I want to sing just like that when I grow up.’”

She sang in the church choir and studied voice at Spelman, where she was also a member of the glee club.

After graduation in 1946, Dobbs moved to New York. She won scholarships to study at the Mannes College of Music and the Berkshire Music Center's Opera Workshop, according to her obituary in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She received a master's degree at Columbia University, and she studied with voice coach Lotte Leonard. She later moved to Paris to study with Pierre Bernac.

Dobbs, a coloratura soprano, became one of the first African-American women to perform as a principal singer at the Metropolitan Opera. She was praised for her stage presence and crystal-clear vocals, which were once described as pure and resonant as a bell.

In 1953, she became the first African-American to perform a lead role, as Elvira in “L’italiana in Algeri,” at La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy. The following year, she made her U.S. debut with the Little Orchestra Society in New York.

She refused to perform before segregated audiences and didn’t perform in her hometown until 1962 before an integrated house at Municipal Auditorium.

She sang at the inauguration of her nephew, Maynard H. Jackson, when he became mayor of Atlanta. Dobbs died in 2015 at age 90.

“She was the most beautiful human being,” said niece Michele Jordan. “I completely forgot she was famous.

“Her legacy is her voice,” said Jordan. “She had the voice of an angel.”