Obituary: Mattiwilda Dobbs, opera singer

Born: 11 July, 1925, in Atlanta, Georgia, US. Died: 8 December, 2015, in Atlanta, aged 90.

Mattiwilda Dobbs, ground-breaking black opera singer whose stellar career defied racial barriers. Picture: TSPL

In an era of racial segregation in America, Mattiwilda Dobbs was a pioneering black opera singer who was the first African-American to perform at the home of opera, the prestigious La Scala in Milan, where she played the lead, Elvira, in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algieri in 1953, and became the first black soprano to sing a romantic lead at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, where she appeared as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1956; she was only the third black American ever to sing there.

Although she had already gained international fame, her homeland had not quite taken her to their hearts. Dobbs became one of the first black opera singers to appear at the Glyndebourne Festival, East Sussex, and made her US operatic debut in September 1955 at the San Francisco Opera, as the Queen of Shemakhan in Le Coq d’Or – the first African-American to play a lead role.

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Her performance at the Met, a year after contralto Marian Anderson had broken the colour barrier, made Dobbs the first black singer offered a long-term contract by the opera house, where she sang on 29 occasions in six roles over eight seasons. Following one performance, in 1957, in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the audience “summoned her back for nine curtain calls” after she had sung her mad scene.

Within a month of her Milan debut, she also sang at the Genoa Opera House as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Following a captivating performance at Covent Garden, the magazine Opera called her “the outstanding coloratura of her generation,” with a “tenderly beautiful voice”.

In 1959, she was one of four Americans, including actors Gary Cooper and Edward G Robinson and producer Harold Hecht, sent by President Dwight D Eisenhower to establish a cultural exchange programme with the USSR. She became the first Met artist ever to perform at the Bolshoi. Taking the time to learn Alabieff’s The Nightingale in Russian, she sent the surprised Muscovite audience into “raptures of excitement”.

Known for her kindness and humility, Dobbs, later served as a mentor and helped pave the way for many aspiring opera singers. Reflecting on how opera had changed, in 1994 she noted: “Things are much better. There are so many black opera singers now that I don’t know them all.”

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1925, Mattiwilda Dobbs was the fifth of six daughters to John Wesley Dobbs and Irene Ophelia Thompson, one of Atlanta’s most prominent black families.

Although her father worked as a railway mail clerk, he was an early civil rights activist, who, after retirement in 1935, founded the Atlanta Civic League and in the late 1940s helped establish the Atlanta Negro Voters League, which, even before the civil rights movement’s heyday of the 1960s, increased black voter registration tenfold.

From an early age, both parents instilled a strong sense of self-worth in their daughters. Aged seven, they all took compulsory piano lessons and as they got older, their father refused to let them go to segregated theatres, saying that it was “no pleasure to go in the back door”. Dobbs would not perform in her hometown until 1962.

As a girl, Dobbs enjoyed singing and, although shy, joined the choir of the family’s local church where she gave her first solo, age six; she was so nervous that she leant on the piano for support.

Dobbs attended Atlanta’s Spellman College studying home economics, although she considered becoming a fashion designer. During her course, teachers convinced her to switch to music; she began to study voice and graduated with a degree in Spanish and Music in 1946. She continued her music training in New York, where she won scholarships to study at the Mannes College of Music and the Berkshire Music Centre’s Opera Workshop. Her father also agreed to fund her vocal studies privately with the esteemed German-Jewish concert soprano Lotte Leonard.

Dobbs later recalled, “Lotte is really responsible for all my vocal technique. At first I trained as a lyric soprano, but the high notes were always very easy for me, and gradually the voice took on a more coloratura character.”

In 1947, Dobbs won the Marian Anderson Award, which, at that time, was restricted to young black singers. She also received a master’s in Spanish from Columbia University. Upon graduation in 1950, she went to Paris on a two-year fellowship for coaching with the baritone Pierre Bernac. She also got some work on French radio.

In 1951, Dobbs’ career was launched and she came to the attention of the European public with her first prize at the Geneva International Music Competition, Switzerland, singing Konstanze’s aria from Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio.

The following year she made her professional operatic debut at the Holland Festival with the Royal Dutch Opera in Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol. With her good looks and delightful voice, she began to enthral audiences across Europe’s capital cities. In January 1953, she made a recital debut at London’s Wigmore Hall, after which one critic noted approvingly that “her voice, a soprano leggiero, is tender, almost feathery, in quality”.

Later that year, Dobbs appeared the Glyndebourne Festival, stealing the show as Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos; she returned occasionally to East Sussex until 1961. From this, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, engaged her from 1954-8.

In 1954, two days before her Covent Garden debut, her husband of 14 months, the Spanish journalist and playwright, Luis Rodriguez, died from a liver condition. Stoically, Dobbs gave her command performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or before Queen Elizabeth II and King Gustav Adolf of Sweden, from whom she received the Order of the North Star. Later that year, she made her only appearance at the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

On other occasions at the Royal Opera, she sang Gilda opposite the Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda, the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Olympia in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, and the Woodbird in Wagner’s Siegfried.

Dobbs also performed at the Edinburgh Festival and in Ireland at the Wexford Festival. In Europe, she became a regular at the Hamburg and Munich Operas and at the Comische Opera in Berlin. In Vienna, critics hailed her as the “queen of Schubert lieder”.

She continued to perform in opera around the world until the arrival of more powerful voices, such as Maria Callas, Antonietta Stella and Joan Sutherland, came into fashion.

In the meantime, she had remarried (1957), Bengt Janzon, a journalist with whom she settled in Stockholm, although travelled regularly to Europe and America. He died in 1997.

Dobbs retired from the stage in 1974, and returned to Spelman as a voice teacher. That year, she returned home to perform the spiritual He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands at the inauguration of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor and also her nephew.

She went on to teach at the University of Texas, Austin, the University of Illinois and Howard University and served on the board of the Met and on the National Endowment of the Arts Solo Recital Panel. She is survived by her sister, June.