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Sat, 07.11.1925

Mattiwilda Dobbs born

Matiwilda Dobbs (1953)

*Mattiwilda Dobbs was born on this date in 1925. She was a Black operatic and gospel singer.

Named for a grandmother, Mattie Wilda Sykes, Mattiwilda Dobbs Janzon was born the fifth of six daughters of John Wesley Dobbs and the former Irene Ophelia Thompson. She grew up in Atlanta, GA and was drawn to music from an early age. Once, her father met Duke Ellington at Ma Suttons restaurant and convinced the Duke to come to his home and play piano for his girls.  Dobbs also sang in her church choir.  She was part of a distinguished family: Ms. Dobbs’s father, a mail-train clerk, active in civic affairs, helping to register Black voters as early as the 1930s. In the late 1940s he helped found the Atlanta Negro Voters League.

After graduating as valedictorian of her class at Spelman College, Mattiwilda headed to New York City, at her father's insistence, to pursue voice lessons.  She decided to focus on opera, even though there weren't many opportunities for Blacks in the opera world then. At age 26, she won an international music competition in Geneva, and her career took off. In 1953, she was the first Black woman to appear in a principal role at the world-famous La Scala Opera House in Milan Italy.  She played Elvira in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri. As she became an internationally famous opera star, Dobbs continuously refused to perform before segregated audiences in Atlanta (with Blacks on one side of the aisle and whites on another).  Finally, in 1962, she performed for a desegregated audience at the Atlanta City Auditorium. After her performance, Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. presented her with a bouquet of roses and said, "You have brought great honor to Atlanta by your appearances all over the world".

Ms. Dobbs’s first husband, Luis Rodriguez Garcia de la Piedra, a Spanish journalist whom she married in 1953, died the next year. (Only days after his death, she honored a commitment to sing at Covent Garden before the new monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.)  In 1957 Dobbs married Bengt Janzon, a Swedish journalist, and she was known afterward in private life as Mattiwilda Dobbs Janzon.  Mr. Janzon died in 1997. Ms. Dobbs’s survivors include a sister, June Dobbs Butts. Her recordings include Mozart’s “The Abduction From the Seraglio,” Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” and Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.” After retiring from the concert stage, Dobbs taught voice at the University of Texas, Spelman College and, for many years, Howard University in Washington, D.C.  Throughout her career, Dobbs refused to sing in segregated concert halls. She did not perform in her hometown, Atlanta, for instance, until 1962, when she sang before an integrated audience at the Municipal Auditorium there.  In 1974 she performed at another epochal Atlanta event, singing the spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” at the inauguration of the city’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson.  Mayor Jackson was also Ms. Dobbs’s nephew.

Mattiwilda Dobbs, a coloratura soprano who was the third African American to appear as a principal singer with the Metropolitan Opera, died on December 8th 2015 at her home in Atlanta.  She was 90. Her death was confirmed by a niece, Michele Jordan.

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