Mattiwilda Dobbs, an African American soprano who helped break the color barrier in opera, appearing in milestone performances at Milan’s La Scala and the Met in New York, died Dec. 8 at a retirement community in Atlanta. She was 90.
The cause was complications from cancer, said her niece Michele Jordan.
The daughter of an early civil rights activist, Ms. Dobbs forged a path in music as one of the most admired coloratura sopranos of her era.
Like many African American opera singers born in the early part of the 20th century, she was first fully recognized for her talent not in the United States, but rather in Europe — an ocean away from the Jim Crow South where she had grown up singing in her First Congregational Church choir in Atlanta and listening to the black contralto Marian Anderson.
Ms. Dobbs’s father, an organizer of early voter-registration drives for blacks, saw to it that she and her five sisters attended college. A series of scholarships helped finance her musical training and took her to Europe, where, while singing as a concert recitalist, she won the International Music Competition in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1951.
“That,” she told Opera News, “launched my career.”
One of Ms. Dobbs’s early listeners in Europe — who later became her manager — was Sol Hurok, the impresario who had helped arrange Anderson’s 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her the chance to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington.
In 1953, Ms. Dobbs became the first black singer to appear in a principal role at La Scala, perhaps the most prestigious opera house on the European continent. The opera was “L’Italiana in Algeri,” Rossini’s comic tale, heavy on feminine wiles, of an Algerian governor searching for a new wife.
“Her part had no arias, but her bright, sure voice led sweetly and gracefully a series of swiftly paced quartets, quintets and sextets,” Time magazine recounted. “When it was all over, she got a round of warmhearted applause that was echoed the next day by the press.”
Ms. Dobbs performed on other major stages across Europe, including in Paris and Vienna and at London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, where she sang before Queen Elizabeth II and visiting Swedish royals. In England, George Lascelles, the seventh earl of Harewood and an authority on opera, called her “the outstanding coloratura of her generation,” with a “tenderly beautiful voice.”
Her American debut came in 1955 at the San Francisco Opera, where she sang the lead female role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel.” The same year, Ms. Dobbs was in the audience in New York when Anderson became the first black singer to appear at the Metropolitan Opera, playing the fortune teller Ulrica in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.”
The performance by Anderson, then 57 years old, was roundly considered long overdue.
“It was very sad,” Ms. Dobbs told Opera News. “As a child, I had heard her when she was in her prime.”
Several weeks later, the baritone Robert McFerrin became the first African American man to sing a principal role at the Met, appearing in Verdi’s “Aida” as the Ethiopian King Amonasro. The next year, on Nov. 9, 1956, Ms. Dobbs was cast in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” as Gilda, the daughter of the hunchbacked jester.
Gilda is seduced by the Duke of Mantua, a plot turn that made Ms. Dobbs the first African American singer selected by the Met for a romantic role. At the time, interracial relationships on and off the opera stage were considered taboo.
Her voice “glittered clear and bright as a glockenspiel in a football band,” Time magazine reported. “She was nervous at first . . . but she stopped the show several times, and the bravos rang out like pistol shots when she finished.”
Also noticed was the white face paint that Ms. Dobbs used to embody Gilda.
“I don’t understand the controversy,” she told Opera News years later. “Maybe it was a matter of racial pride for the others. I figured, if you’re going to play someone’s daughter, it doesn’t hurt to look like him. . . . White artists who play Aida and Otello put on dark makeup. Why shouldn’t we wear light makeup when we play a white character?”
She sang 29 times at the Met from her debut through 1964, in roles including the title character of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Olympia in Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” Oscar in “Un Ballo in Maschera,” Zerlina in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”
In her contracts, Ms. Dobbs refused to sing before segregated audiences, a decision inspired by a similar move by Paul Robeson and one that she said cost her work in the American South. She did perform at events organized by black churches or colleges with some whites in attendance.
“It was a strange thing,” she remarked. “Then it didn’t matter for them to sit next to black people.”
Ms. Dobbs would perhaps have had a more prominent career, Opera News once noted, if her time on stage had not coincided with that of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, considered two of the greatest sopranos of all time. Ms. Dobbs was widely credited with helping pave the way for future black opera singers, including Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle.
Mattiwilda Dobbs – she was named for her grandmother Mattie Wilda – was born in Atlanta on July 11, 1925.
She credited her father, who worked as a railway mail clerk, with facilitating her education. She began studying piano when she was 7.
Ms. Dobbs studied voice at Spelman College, the historically black institution in Atlanta where she graduated in 1946. As a career back-up, she received a master’s degree in Spanish from Columbia University Teachers College.
Ms. Dobbs also studied in New York at the Mannes School of Music, in Massachusetts at the Berkshire Music Center and in Paris under the singer Pierre Bernac. She recorded operas including “The Tales of Hoffmann” and Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” and, in 1998, released the collection “Arias and Songs.”
Ms. Dobbs’s first husband, Luis Rodriguez Garcia de la Piedra, a Spanish journalist, died of a liver ailment after 14 months of marriage — days ahead of her performance before Queen Elizabeth in 1954. Ms. Dobbs later was married to Bengt Janzon, an opera executive at the Royal Opera in Stockholm and also her manager, for four decades before his death in 1997.
A former professor at Howard University in Washington, she lived for many years in Arlington, Va., and Stockholm before moving to Atlanta in 2012. Survivors include a sister. A nephew, the late Maynard H. Jackson Jr., was the first black mayor of Atlanta, first elected in 1973.
In addition to her performances at the most illustrious opera houses of the world, Ms. Dobbs participated in a milestone close to home. In 1962, she sang at Atlanta’s municipal auditorium — before an integrated audience. The mayor at the time presented her with roses.
“You have brought honor to Atlanta,” he told her, in a scene reported by Time magazine.
“My heart is so full,” she replied. “I just can’t say it.”