Dobbs, Mattiwilda 1925–
Mattiwilda Dobbs 1925–
Mattiwilda Dobbs, internationally-known as a concert and opera singer and the third black American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, was born the fifth of six daughters of a United States postal railway clerk on July 11, 1925, in Atlanta, Georgia. Her father, John Wesley Dobbs, worked the run between Atlanta and Nashville, Tennessee. In those days of Jim Crow, he used to borrow books from Fisk University and other libraries to take home for his children who, because they were black, could not borrow from the Atlanta public libraries. He also required that each of his daughters take ten years of musical training. A piano was the first thing that her father had bought after he married Irene Thompson.
Dobbs sang in her high school choir but did not think seriously about vocal training until she was in college. When her singing voice was noticed, “I already had a long musical training,” Dobbs recalled in Press. “If I had had no training when my voice was discovered, it might have been too late to start.” By this time her father had become a prominent person. After he had retired from the post office in 1935, he had organized the Georgia Voters League, which, even before the civil rights movement’s heyday of the 1960s, increased black voter registration in the state tenfold. He was fast becoming the leading Prince Hall Mason of his day. He and his family took a major part, too, in the life of Spelman College. Rare is the issue of the school newspaper that does not mention at least one of them when Dobbs and her sisters attended there. Active in the college choir, Dobbs sang with the combined choruses of Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College in national radio broadcasts. She studied voice with Naomi Maise and Willis Lawrence James. “I would never have been a singer,” Dobbs told Look, ” if it were not for my father. I was too shy. She graduated first in her class, with majors in music and Spanish, in 1946.
Although she made a few concert dates in the local black community, Dobbs focused instead on further training. She went to New York to study privately with Lottie Leonard, the noted Wagnerian and specialist in lieder. “She is really responsible for all my vocal technique,” Dobbs the Daily Telegraph. “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.” Just in case a singing career should elude her, Dobbs also entered Columbia University Teachers College, majoring in Spanish, studying music by day and Spanish by night. In 1948 she summered at the University of Mexico and, after appearing as a soloist at Columbia University’s annual music festival, received her M.A. That fall she became among the first to win a Marian Anderson Scholarship. The Mannes School of Music awarded her a scholarship to its opera workshop. In 1949 she also won a scholarship to the opera workshop of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. She continued to study with Leonard until 1950.
Then Dobbs got the chance to go to Europe. By winning a $3000 John Hay Whitney scholarship, she was able to travel to Paris to study with Pierre Bernac from 1950 to 1952, thereby expanding her knowledge of the full range of French song from the baroque to
Born on July 11, 1925, in Atlanta, GA; daughter of John Wesley Dobbs (civil rights organizer and postal railway clerk); married Luis Rodriguez (playwright and journalist), died 1954; married Swedish journalist Bengt Janzon. Education: Spelman College, music and Spanish, 1946; Columbia University Teachers College, MA, Spanish; University of Mexico, summer study.
Career: Opera Singer; began performing in Europe; made Met debut in 1956; taught at the University of Texas in Austin;University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana; Howard University, Washington, D.C.; Spelman College, artist-in-residence; released recordings, most recent, Arias & Songs, 2000.
Awards: Spelman College, honorary doctor of fine arts degree; Anderson Scholarship, first recipient; NAACP, James Weldon Johnson Award in Fine Arts, 1983; Library of Congress, exhibit about her career.
Poulenc. She was also coached in Spanish repertoire by Lola Rodriguez de Aragon. More importantly, Dobbs was able to perform and compete in the European music arena. For an American operatic success, it was still necessary first for American singers, not least black American ones, to succeed in Europe. She got some work on French radio in 1950. Then, in 1951, despite a sprained ankle and not having slept for twenty-four hours, she won first prize in the International Music Competition in Geneva. Dobbs sang Constanze’s aria from Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio. Teresa Stich-Randall won second that year. Victoria de los Angeles had placed first only a few years earlier. The prize launched Dobbs’s career.
It was a time for firsts. Gifted with great beauty of person as well as voice, Dobbs was to cut a fine figure on the operatic stage. Soon after winning at Geneva, she sang the lead in Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol at the Holland Festival. In the 1952-1953 season she undertook an extended concert tour of Europe, starting with the Scandinavian capitals and then proceeding to the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, and Britain. At the same time she was experiencing change in her personal life. She had been engaged almost since she met him in Paris to Luis Rodriguez, a Spanish playwright and journalist. They married in Genoa on April 4, 1953. That year, at the request of Herbert von Karajan, she became the first black to sing at La Scala, where she played Elvira in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algieri. Within the month she also sang at the Genoa Opera House as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Dobbs’s success as Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the 1953 Glyndebourne Festival resulted in her being engaged from 1953 through 1958 by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
In March of 1954 Dobbs made her debut at Town Hall in New York City in a concert performance of Ariadne auf Naxos under Thomas Scheerman. Then, two days before she was to debut at Covent Garden, on June 28th, her husband died in London of a liver ailment. “We knew that he might not have a long time,” said Dobbs in the Daily Telegraph, ” so our happiness was very precious.” Dobbs kept her engagement, a command performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel before Queen Elizabeth II, the first time since 1919 that the opera had been performed at the Royal Opera. Dobbs played the Queen opposite Hughes Cuenod and Geraint Evans; the performance was conducted by Igor Markevitch. At Covent Garden she also later sang Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, the title role in Donivetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Olympia in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, and the Forest Bird in Wagner’s Siegfried.
By then Dobbs’s agent in Paris had arranged for her to sing for Sol Hurok. The impresario told her that the same agent had brought Marian Anderson to sing for him in the same hall at the same time of the year some two decades before. Dobbs remained under Hurok’s international management for several years. In the summer of 1955 she conducted a three-month tour of thirty-five recitals in Australia, Fiji, and Hawaii. In September she made her American operatic debut in the lead in the San Francisco Opera’s The Golden Cockerel, becoming the first black person to play a major role in that company. She toured Mexico and South America. She made her first recordings. Among the small labels of the early LP era that recorded her were Polymusic and Renaissance. The latter made a notable recording of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers with her, later reissued on Cetra Gold in the late 1960s. For Angel, a major label, Dobbs made a recording of duets from Rigoletto with Jan Peerce.
On November 9, 1956, Dobbs made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera opposite Peerce in Rigoletto. Thus, Dobbs, only the third black American ever to sing at the Met, became the first one to sing a romantic lead at the Met. Following this, she went on a six-month tour of Britain, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Israel, and the Soviet Union. In Israel she toured with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In the Soviet Union, as part of the cultural exchange program of the United States government, she became the first Met artist ever to perform at the Bolshoi, where she played in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. The part of Rosina allowed her to choose any song predating Rossini to be interpolated into the singing lessons in the third act. Dobbs went to the trouble to learn Alabieff’s “The Nightingale” in Russian. Surprised by the gesture, the Moscow audience went wild.
Dobbs returned to the Met on December 22, 1957, to play the lead opposite Richard Tucker in Lucia di Lammermoor. The next day she married Swedish journalist Bengt Janzon, who was the director of public relations for the Royal Opera in Stockholm. She had met him during one of what became many appearances as a guest artist there. When she was not traveling, she had made her home in Madrid. Now she moved her base of operations to Stockholm. This enabled her to concentrate on performing in those smaller European houses where her poised, bell-like voice carried well. Recording flattered her silvery voice, but, in live performance, it did not always overcome large orchestras in extremely large halls, like the Met, which seats 4,400 persons. This eventually limited her appearances at the Met to performances in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Ariadne auf Naxos, Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Tales of Hoffman. She recorded the roles of both Olympia and Antonia in Tales of Hoffman in 1958 for Epic, a record label of American Columbia. In Europe, halls like Glyndebourne, which seats only one thousand, were perfect for her Constanze in The Abduction From the Seraglio, but she also continued to play large halls for solo recitals.
Dobbs’s choice of material for recitals was fairly adventurous. In her first Town Hall solo recital, she had performed contemporary songs by Egk, Milhaud, Rodrigo, and Roussel as well as older music. In the Royal Festival Hall in London, she sang songs by Stravinsky, Respighi, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco in addition to baroque arias. In other venues, she performed works by Villa-Lobos and by contemporary United States composers as well as Louisiana Creole slave songs arranged by Camille Nickerson and African-American spirituals. Black American repertoire always played a large part in the recitals that Hurok scheduled for her on historically black American college campuses.
During the first seven years of their marriage, Janzon accompanied Dobbs as her press agent. Traveling constantly, she was constrained to develop her own method for practicing. Before leaving Stockholm, she would record her own accompaniment at the piano. She would then practice along with the tape and later play it to accompanists in order to show them how she wanted it to go in recital. In this way her piano training gave her an advantage on the road, according the New York Herald-Tribune. In later years, Dobbs traveled with members of her American family and summered with Janzon in Sweden.
At the high point of her career, in January of 1962, Dobbs returned triumphantly to her hometown. During the previous year, the Met, as usual, had visited the Fox Theater in Atlanta (but without her in the cast). Black patrons had been required, as usual, to sit separately and use side entrances and the fire escapes. Dobbs vowed not to sing under those circumstances. The next year she gave her first citywide concert, with no segregation in seating, at the Municipal Auditorium. She was also given the key to the city. In 1963 she gave another successful recital at the auditorium.
In Britain Dobbs performed at the Edinburgh Festival and in Ireland at the Wexford Festival. On the Continent, she became a regular at the Hamburg and Munich Operas and at the Comische Opera in Berlin. In Vienna, the critics hailed her as the “queen of Schubert lieder,” which she regarded as the highest musical compliment she had received up to that time. She also appeared in opera in Copenhagen, Oslo, and Helsinki as well as in Stockholm. King Gustav Adolf of Sweden decorated her with the Order of the North Star following a gala performance at Covent Garden before the British and Swedish royal families. She began an association in the early 1960s with the two-hundred-year-old Drottningholm Court Theater outside Stockholm that enabled her to play a significant role in the revival of authentic performance practice in baroque and classical music. Perhaps the most perfectly preserved eighteenth-century court theater anywhere, the 350-seat Drottningholm was an ideal venue for chamber opera, and Dobbs had the ideal voice for it. Dobbs became a great favorite there, appearing regularly in its summer productions. Her greatest success there was as Constanze in The Abduction From the Seraglio, which she recorded in an English-language version for Angel with Nicolai Gedda, conducted by Yehudi Menuhin. Other recordings from the 1960s include a recital of French and German songs accompanied by the great Gerald Moore, Don Giovanni for Columbia, and the part of Olympia in Deutsche Grammophon’s Tales of Hoffmann excerpts. Her active repertoire included more than two hundred concert pieces and twenty operatic roles.
Dobbs’s career at its peak was principally a European one. Since then she has become more associated with the American music scene. In 1967 she returned to Atlanta for two months, performing in the short-lived local opera company under Blanche Thebom. This was the first time that Dobbs had taken her white husband with her into the South. After making a Third World tour in 1968, she began to divide most of her performing between Sweden in the summer and the United States during the rest of the year. In the 1972-1973 school year, she appeared widely in recital on American college campuses. She taught at the University of Texas in Austin. With the New Jersey Schola Cantorum, she performed in Franz Xavier Brixi’s Missa Solemnis in D and at Carnegie Hall in Charpentier’s Te Deum under Abraham Kaplan.
In 1974, with the election of her nephew, Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, Dobbs spent even more time in the United States. She sang at the inauguration. Starting in 1974, she served as artist-in-residence at Spelman College, and in 1979 she received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from her alma mater. In 1976 she sang Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasilieras No.5 and Richard Strauss’s Brentano lieder with the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Shaw. She taught at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. In 1977, for two months, she returned for the fourth time to Australia, and she sang with Nicolai Gedda in The Pearl Fishers with Lyric Opera, the new permanent company in Atlanta. In 1978, she, who had been among the first recipients of the Anderson Scholarship, sang before President Jimmy Carter at the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to Marian Anderson. In 1979 she appeared in Haiti at Richard Long’s Black Arts Festival. The next year she sang for the inauguration of an exhibition about her career at the Library of Congress. She sang at the Kennedy Center for Black History Month. The Atlanta NAACP awarded her the James Weldon Johnson Award in Fine Arts in 1983. In 1989 she was elected to the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera. She has been teaching at Howard University, Washington, D.C., since the 1970s. A collection of her recordings, Arias & Songs, was released in 2000.
Notable Black American Women, Book I. Gale Research, 1992.
Amistad Research Center News 2, September 1973.
Daily Telegraph, (Sydney, Australia), July 17, 1955.
Gramophone, June 1954.
Look 33, December 2, 1969.
New York Herald-Tribune, August 13, 1965.
Opera News, January 2000.
Press, (Christchurch, New Zealand), May 14, 1968.
Stage, June 17, 1954.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through the Dobbs Family Papers, located in the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans.
Dobbs, Mattiwilda, black American soprano and teacher; b. Atlanta, July 11, 1925. She was educated at Spelman Coll. in Atlanta (B.A., 1946) and at Columbia Univ. (M.A., 1948); pursued vocal training with Lotte Leonard in N.Y. (1946–50) and Bernac in Paris (1950–52). In 1948 she won the Marian Anderson scholarship contest and made her debut as a concert artist; in 1951 she won 1st prize in singing in the Geneva Competition. After appearing in opéra and recitals in Holland (1952), she sang at Milan’s La Scala, the Glyndebourne Festival, and London’s Covent Garden (1953). In 1955 she appeared at the San Francisco opéra; on Nov. 9,1956, she made her Metropolitan opéra debut in N.Y. as Gilda. In 1957 she made her first appearance at the Royal Swedish opéra in Stockholm; also sang at the Hamburg State opéra (1961–63; 1967). In addition to her opératic and concert engagements in the U.S. and Europe, she toured in Australia, New Zealand, and Israel. She was a visiting prof, at the Univ. of Tex. in Austin (1973–74), then was a prof, at the Univ. of 111. (1975–76), the Univ. of Ga. (1976–77), and Howard Univ. in Washington, D.C. (from 1977).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire