Mattiwilda Dobbs, 90: Singer paved way for other black opera stars

Atlanta native Mattiwilda Dobbs rose to international fame in the 1950s as one of the first African-American opera singers to perform on major stages around the world.

The coloratura soprano was acclaimed for a vocal technique described as pure and resonant as a bell, lively interpretations and stage presence. She is credited with paving the way for other black opera singers including Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle.

“This is a tremendous loss for American music,” said composer and former music professor T.J. Anderson of Atlanta. “She had a great deal of flexibility in her voice. Her voice was light and distinguished because of the clarity of it. Everything was precise. We have lost a gem.”

Dobbs died Dec. 8 at her Atlanta home after a brief bout with cancer. She was 90. Her funeral will be held at 11 a.m. on Dec. 18 at First Congregational Church in Atlanta.

Like many African-American artists in the early 20th century, Dobbs, a daughter of the Jim Crow South, first was recognized for her talent while performing throughout Europe.

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. The following year, she made her American debut with the Little Orchestra Society in New York City.

Inspired by actor and singer Paul Robeson’s similar action, Dobbs refused to perform before segregated audiences and did not perform in her hometown until 1962 before an integrated house at Municipal Auditorium.

Dobbs was born on July 11, 1925, into one of Atlanta’s most prominent black families. She was the fifth of six daughters.

Her father, civic and political leader John Wesley Dobbs, was known as the unofficial mayor of Auburn Avenue. Her nephew, Maynard Jackson, became Atlanta’s first black mayor.

Her parents instilled a strong sense of self-worth in their daughters. Her father refused to let them to go to segregated theaters and insisted they all take piano lessons, starting at age 7.

As a child, Dobbs took a keen interest in singing. Although shy and self-effacing, she joined the choir at First Congregational and sang her first solo at age 6.

Dobbs and her five sisters all graduated from Spelman College, where she received a music degree and was valedictorian of her class in 1946.

After graduation, she continued her music training in New York, where she won scholarships to study at the Mannes College of Music and the Berkshire Music Center’s Opera Workshop. 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.

Her career took off after she won the International Music Competition in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1951. The next year, she made her professional operatic debut at the Holland Festival with the Royal Dutch Opera in Stravinsky’s “Le Rossignol.”

In 1953, she made her debut at the Royal Opera House in London and later performed at the Paris Opera, the Vienna State Opera and opera houses in Hamburg and Stockholm. In 1955, she became the first African-American to play a lead role at the San Francisco Opera.

The following year, she made her debut as Gilda in “Rigoletto” with the Metropolitan Opera in 1956 – a year after contralto Marian Anderson broke the color barrier. Dobbs also was the first black singer to be offered a long-term contract by the Met, where she sang 29 times in six roles during eight seasons.

After retiring from the stage in 1974, Dobbs began her career as a voice teacher at Spelman. That year, she sang at her nephew’s 1974 inauguration gala.

She later taught at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Illinois and Howard University. She also served on the board of the Metropolitan Opera and on the National Endowment of the Arts Solo Recital Panel. Spelman awarded her a honorary doctorate in 1979.

Dobbs was married twice. Her first husband, Spanish playwright and journalist Luis Rodriguez, died a year after their wedding. She later was married to Swedish newspaper journalist Bengt Janzon for nearly 40 years until his death in 1997.

She retired from Howard in 1991 and from singing two years later. In 2012, she returned to Atlanta. Known for her kindness and humility, Dobbs served as a mentor to many aspiring opera singers.

“I’ve shared her recordings with my students so that they would know of her artistry and the sheer beauty of her instrument,” said Spelman voice professor Laura English-Robinson. “While she had a career that was phenomenal, she was gracious and kind and generous with her time. She was the consummate singer. She had the total package.”

Dobbs is survived by her sister June Dobbs Butts of Atlanta.

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