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Operatic Sensation Mattawilda Dobbs Breaks Through Barriers of Segregation

April 2016

Spelman Alumna Mattawilda DobbsDating back to the ’50s, Mattiwilda Dobbs, C'46, enamored audiences around the world as a coloratura soprano.  A music and Spanish major at Spelman, Dobbs, the offspring of John and Irene Dobbs and the aunt of former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, is one of the first Blacks to have an international operatic career. She staunchly believed in equality and refused to sing in segregated venues. 

After completing her studies at Spelman, Dobbs continued her voice studies in New York at the Mannes College of Music and won a John Hay Whitney Fellowship scholarship. By 1951, her career would take a catapulting rise when she won an international music competition in Geneva, Switzerland. Thereafter, she made her professional debut in 1952 as the nightingale in Stravinsky’s “The Nightingale” at the Holland Festival. Festival after festival and opera house after opera house, Dobbs broke down color barriers throughout Europe, including London, Vienna, Milan, Hamburg and Stockholm.

Dobbs Credits Spelman for Giving Her a Firm Foundation

“While I toured throughout Europe and studied with great European talent, it was Spelman where I got my foundation,” said Dobbs, the 1946 class valedictorian. “We had excellent teachers at Spelman. It was during the time we had Kemper Harreld and Willis Laurence James, and they were simply some of the best teachers I ever had to train us in music theory.”

It wasn’t until 1954 when she would debut in the United States with The Little Orchestra Society in New York, and in 1955 she became the first African American to play a major role in the San Francisco Opera. While it is well known that Marian Anderson was the first Black to perform at the New York Metropolitan Opera, it was Dobbs who was the first to be offered a long-term contract.

“I had gone to the Met many times as a student to see performances, so to actually be there now performing was such a great experience,” said Dobbs, who was a member of the Spelman College Glee Club.

Like Anderson, Dobbs refused to perform before segregated audiences. Atlanta was no exception, and it would be 1962 before she performed in her home city before an integrated audience at the Municipal Auditorium.  

Howard Zinn Remembers Mattawilda Dobb's Commitment to Equality

In "The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy," Howard Zinn, a former Spelman professor and Honorary Degree recipient, penned the following account:

Her father, John Wesly Dobbs, was one of Atlanta’s most distinguished citizens, a militant battler for equal rights and a great orator in the old Southern tradition. I heard him keep a crowd of thousands in an uproar one night in the Wheat Street Baptist Church. “My Mattiwilda was asked to sing here in Atlanta,” he thundered at one point, “but she said, “No sir! Not while my daddy has to sit in the balcony!”

Mattawilda DobbsIn 1974, after retiring from the stage, Dobbs began a teaching career at the University of Texas, where she was the first African-American artist on the faculty. She spent the 1974-75 school year as artist-in-residence at Spelman College, giving recitals and teaching master classes. In 1979, Spelman awarded honorary doctorates to both Dobbs and Anderson.
Dobbs continued her teaching career as professor of voice at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She served on the board of the Metropolitan Opera and on the National Endowment of the Arts Solo Recital Panel. Dobbs continued to give recitals until as late as 1990 before retiring to Arlington, Virginia in 1991. Read More:"Mattiwilda Dobbs: Pioneering soprano whose 1950s appearances helped break opera's colour barrier."

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