The Legacy Of Mattiwilda Dobbs, The Famous Opera Singer Who Refused To Perform Before Segregated Audiences

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When her father suggested she go to New York City to take voice lessons, she was looking at a music genre that was unfamiliar to many Black musicians.

Mattiwilda Dobbs aspired to be an opera singer despite the fact that there were few opportunities for African Americans in this field. She was confident she would make history because she was no stranger to success. She graduated as the class valedictorian from Spelman College.

According to the African American Registry, Dobbs won an international music competition in Geneva at the age of 26 to stay true to her calling. That was her first foray into celebrity. She was the first Black woman to perform at Milan’s world-famous La Scala Opera House. In Rossini’s L’Italiana, she played Elvira.

Dobbs made a racial equality statement during her career when she refused to perform in front of segregated audiences in Atlanta, where whites were on one side and blacks were on the other.

She performed for a desegregated audience at Atlanta City Auditorium in 1962. Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. presented her with a bouquet of roses and told her that her actions had brought honor to Atlanta with her performances.

Dobbs’ position on racial segregation is unsurprising. She was born in 1925, during a time of widespread racial discrimination and social injustice. Mattie Wilda Sykes, her grandmother, inspired her name. She was the fifth daughter in a family of six. Her love of music began at a young age on the streets of Atlanta. She was a member of the church choir.

In the 1930s, her father was a mail train clerk who participated in community service and rallied black voters to register to vote. He was a founding member of the Atlanta Negro Voters League. He played an important role in Dobbs’ musical career. He once invited Duke Ellington to his home and persuaded him to play the piano for his daughters.

Dobbs was married to Luis Rodriguez Garcia de la Piedra, a Spanish journalist. They married in 1953, but he died the following year. This misfortune did not deter her from accepting an invitation to perform in front of the new monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, at Covent Garden. She performed just a few days after her husband passed away.

She later married Swedish journalist Bengt Janzon again. In 1997, he passed away. After retiring from stage performance, Dobbs taught for many years at the University of Texas and Spelman College. She was also a voice instructor at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

She died on December 8, 2015, at the age of 90, at her home in Atlanta. She was the third African-American principal singer at the Metropolitan Opera.

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

 

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