In 1953, Mattiwilda Dobbs made music history when she performed on stage at La Scala, becoming the first African American in the history of the opera house to do so. At the time, Dobbs called it her “trial by fire,” though it wasn’t her first time singing in a European opera. She arrived on the continent in 1950, won the Geneva International the next year, and made her operatic debut when she sang Stravinky’s “Le Rossignol” from behind a curtain at Holland Festival in 1952. But, when Dobbs appeared as Elvira in Rossini’s “Italian in Algiers,” she was, at the age of 25, finally being seen and heard by a European audience on the most legendary stage in the history of opera.
Dobbs was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1925, one of six daughters from a prominent African American family and named for her grandmother Mattie Wilda Sykes. Her father, John Wesley Dobbs, was a railroad mail clerk and active in the local civil rights movement of the 1930s and 40s, helping to organize the Atlanta Negro Voters League. Both he and his wife Irene encouraged their daughters in music. All of the Dobbs girls sang, and Mattiwilda also played piano. Indeed, she maintained that if not for her father, she would have never pursued a career in music. She was too shy. But her talent was widely known around the city, and she attracted the attention of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dad who tried to arrange a marriage between Dobbs and his soon-to-be famous son. Of course that didn’t happen, though King did marry another singer later on. Dobbs stayed in Atlanta after high school, attending Spelman College and graduating with a degree in music and Spanish in 1947, before leaving for New York City to study with German soprano Lotte Leonard. After completing her Masters’ degree in Spanish at Columbia University and winning a few prestigious singing awards, she saved the money to move to Europe in 1950. By then, she had cultivated a reputation as a pure and technical coloratura soprano with impeccable tone and an arresting presence on stage, even if she didn’t rattle the beams when she sang.
A month after her debut at La Scala, she married Rodrigues Garcia, a foreign correspondent for National Radio in Madrid, whom she met in Paris while he was studying at the Sorbonne. The two left for a European tour, though Garcia died tragically of liver disease just fourteen months after their wedding. Now a widow, Dobbs return to New York in 1954 for her debut there, and then she was back on the road in Europe. However, in 1956, Dobbs caused more than a ripple when she was signed to follow Marian Anderson, the first African American to sing for the Metropolitan Opera, onto the Met’s roster, instead of fellow singers Leontyne Price or Adele Addison. The competition was fierce, but the even bigger surprise was Marian Anderson’s absence that season (Anderson had chosen the more lucrative route of independent concerts). In many ways, it was the end of an era, and the beginning of a new and modern time for opera in America and the world. Dobbs became the first black woman to sign a longtime contract with the Met (and only the third to perform on that stage), and her roles that first season included Olympia in “Tales of Hoffman,” Oscar in “The Masked Ball,” Lucia in “Lucia di Lammermore,” and Zerlina in “Don Giovanni” (though she would eventually perform in 29 roles through 1964), After she completed the season, she embarked on another international tour. By the end of the decade, Dobbs had toured the United States, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and Russia. She also managed to find time to marry Swedish newspaperman Bangt Janzon. She was a star, seen and heard on stages around the world.
In solidarity with many other black singers at the time, Dobbs also refused to perform for segregated audiences. While it certainly limited her opportunities, she was a trailblazer in hardwon cities like her hometown, where she sang before the first integrated audience at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium in 1962. She had to wait for over a decade, but at last, she’d returned home, “Atlanta’s Queen of Opera.” However, hadn’t lived in Atlanta for years. She had lived in Spain with her first husband, and when she married Janzon, they chose to have the ceremony in New York because the scandal of interracial marriage in the South would have made their wedding dangerous in Atlanta. They later settled down in Sweden.
After a long career, Dobbs retired in 1974 to teach voice at the University of Texas in Austin and later Howard University, though she did perform here and there. She sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” at her nephew Maynard Jackson’s inauguration as Atlanta’s first black mayor. Throughout her career, Dobbs was somewhat eclipsed by following legend Marian Anderson and preceding the meteoric rise of Leontyne Price. Yet she was remembered by loyal fans for her strong, crystal-clear voice and principled stands against segregation. She was honored in 1980 by the Library of Congress and received the James Weldon Johnson Award in Fine Arts from the NAACP’s Atlanta Chapter in 1983. She died recently at her home in Atlanta in December 2015. She was 90 years old.