BY Stephen Nartey, 4:00pm January 31, 2023,

Mattiwilda Dobbs, the famous opera singer who refused to perform before segregated audiences

Mattiwilda Dobbs/Photo credit: The Scotsman/ TSPL

When her father advised her to go to New York City to take courses to improve her voice, she was eyeing a music genre which was unfamiliar to many Black music artists.

Mattiwilda Dobbs wanted to be an opera singer though there were limited opportunities for African Americans in this space. She was confident she would break ground because she was not new to achieving success. She was the valedictorian of her class at Spelman College.

To be true to her calling, Dobbs won an international music competition in Geneva at the age of 26 years, according to the African American Registry. That was her first step into stardom. She became the first Black woman to feature at the world-famous La Scala Opera House in Milan Italy. She played Elvira in Rossini’s L’Italiana.

One racial equality statement Dobbs made during her career was that she refused to perform before segregated audiences in Atlanta where whites were on one side with Blacks at the other end.

In 1962, she performed for a desegregated crowd at Atlanta City Auditorium. Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. recognized this act with a bouquet of roses and told her that she has brought honor to Atlanta with her performances.

Dobbs’ stance on racial segregation isn’t surprising. She was born in 1925 when racial discrimination and social injustice were rife. She was named after her grandmother, Mattie Wilda Sykes. She was the fifth of six daughters. Her love for music was nurtured at an early age on the streets of Atlanta. She sang in the church choir.

Her father was a mail train clerk who participated in community engagements and rallied black voters to register in the 1930s. He was involved in the formation of the Atlanta Negro Voters League. He was instrumental in Dobbs’ music career. One time he invited Duke Ellington to his residence and persuaded him to play piano for his girls.

Dobbs was married to a Spanish journalist, Luis Rodriguez Garcia de la Piedra. They married in 1953 but the man died the next year. This calamity did not deter her from honoring the invitation to sing at Covent Garden before the new monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. She performed just days after her husband died.

She later married again to Swedish journalist, Bengt Janzon. He passed away in 1997. Dobbs took up a teaching job at the University of Texas and Spelman College for many years after she retired from stage performance. She also taught voice at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

She passed away on December 8, 2015, at the age of 90 at her residence in Atlanta. She was the third African American to perform as a principal singer with the Metropolitan Opera.

Dobbs’ notable records are Mozart’s “The Abduction From the Seraglio,” Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” and Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 31, 2023


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