My long lost friend Florie told me that her aunt is an opera singer, but I could never remember her name. Just a while ago my friend Angela shared an article with me about the first graduating class of 10 black women to from Harvard Law School, of which she was one. In that article Angela discovers her Harvard classsmate’s book on Black Expatriates. In that book she sees an entry on Mattiwilda Dobbs whom she remembers as their classmate’s godmother.
When I researched Mattiwilda Dobbs I realised that she is my long lost friend Florie’s aunt, the opera singer I had been told about many years before! Here’s a brief look at her ground breaking life.
Mattiwilda Dobbs has sung in virtually every major concert hall in the United States and abroad, with her sparkling voice thrilling audiences and astounding critics. She is considered to be one of the great coloratura sopranos of our time. With a career that has taken her to every corner of the earth and onto stages of the great opera houses of the world, including the Bolshoi Opera, the Vienna State Opera, Glyndebourne, the Paris Opera, and the Stockholm Royal Opera, she often broke color barriers. Her 1953 debut at La Scala as Elvira in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri marked the first time a black artist ever sang in that famed opera house. That same year her great success as Zorbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne resulted in her first major performance in New York with the Little Orchestra Society. Dobbs desegregated the San Francisco Opera Company two years later. The following year she became the first black soprano to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House and the first black female to sing regularly under contract with that house. Her debut as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto followed Marian Anderson’s and Robert McFerrin’s barrier-breaking debuts by one year.
Born in Atlanta, Ms. Dobbs sang her first solo at age six, and began her musical studies in piano one year later. She began her formal voice training under the tutelage of Naomi Maise and Willis Laurence James at Spelman College where she graduated valedictorian. Upon graduation Ms. Dobbs traveled to New York to study with Lotte Leonard. While in New York, she was granted a Marian Anderson Award as well as scholarships to the Mannes Music School and to the Opera Workshop at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. She also won a John Hay Whitney Fellowship and used the grant to study French repertoire in Paris for two years with Pierre Bernac, and to coach Spanish repertoire with Lola Rodriques de Aragon in Spain.
In addition to these awards, Ms. Dobbs won the coveted first prize at the International Music Competition in Geneva over hundreds of other singers from four continents. Shortly afterwards, her international career took off with her debut in Amsterdam with the Netherlands Opera, followed by engagements in Paris, London, Vienna, Stockholm, and Milan. Numerous engagements followed, including and invitation to sing a command performance before Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and visiting King Gustave and Queen Louise of Sweden at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Following the performance she was decorated with the Order of the North Star by King Gustave. Her list of festival appearances is also extensive, including the Edinburgh Festival, Perth (Australia), Auckland (New Zealand), and the Caramoor, Meadow Brook, and Grant Park Festivals in the United States. In Russia, Japan, Australia, Israel, South America, Mexico, Scandinavia, the United States, and all of Europe, she became a favorite with the opera and concert goers and critics.
Although she remained close to her family and performed in Atlanta several times, personal as well as professional considerations prevented Dobbs from making the city her home. She lived in Spain with her first husband, Luis Rodriguez, who died of a liver ailment in June 1954, fourteen months after their wedding. She then married Bengt Janzon, a Swedish newspaperman, just before Christmas 1957. Her family attended the wedding, but because of the stir an interracial marriage would have caused in the segregated South, the ceremony was held in New York, and the new couple made their home in Sweden. Bengt Janzon did not visit Atlanta until 1967.
Following the example set by African American performer and activist Paul Robeson, Dobbs refused to perform for segregated audiences. In Atlanta she could have performed in African American churches or colleges, but she was not able to perform for a large integrated audience until the Atlanta City Auditorium was desegregated in 1962, when she was joined onstage and given a key to the city by Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. It was the first of many performances in her home city. Before the organization of the Atlanta Opera in 1985, Dobbs performed in operas produced and directed by the acclaimed opera singer Blanche Thebom, and in 1974 she sang at the gala marking the inauguration of her nephew Maynard Jackson as mayor of Atlanta.
In 1974, after retiring from the stage, Dobbs began a teaching career at the University of Texas, where she was the first African American artist on the faculty. She spent the 1974-75 school year as artist-in-residence at Spelman College, giving recitals and teaching master classes. In 1979 Spelman awarded honorary doctorates to both Dobbs and Marian Anderson.
Dobbs continued her teaching career as professor of voice at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. She served on the board of the Metropolitan Opera and on the National Endowment of the Arts Solo Recital Panel. Dobbs continued to give recitals until as late as 1990 before retiring to Arlington, Virginia, where she currently resides.