Mattiwilda Dobbs Janzon obituary photo
 
In Memory of

Mattiwilda Dobbs Janzon

July 11, 1925 - December 8, 2015

Obituary


African American Soprano



July 11, 1925 – December 8, 2015



Mattiwilda Dobbs, a coloratura soprano and one of the pioneering African American opera singers who sang at the Metropolitan Opera, at La Scala and other international opera houses during the 1950s and 1960s died in Atlanta, Georgia on December 8. Ms. Dobbs’ coloratura soprano voice was praised for its freshness and agility, glowing texture and tonal beauty. She was 90.



Ms. Dobbs grew up in a musical household, where singing was a constant. She started piano lessons at seven like all of...

African American Soprano



July 11, 1925 – December 8, 2015



Mattiwilda Dobbs, a coloratura soprano and one of the pioneering African American opera singers who sang at the Metropolitan Opera, at La Scala and other international opera houses during the 1950s and 1960s died in Atlanta, Georgia on December 8. Ms. Dobbs’ coloratura soprano voice was praised for its freshness and agility, glowing texture and tonal beauty. She was 90.



Ms. Dobbs grew up in a musical household, where singing was a constant. She started piano lessons at seven like all of her sisters and sang in the church choir as a teenager. She began formal voice training at Spelman College in Atlanta and also sang in the glee club. A music and Spanish major, she was valedictorian of her class. Upon graduation in 1946, Ms. Dobbs traveled to New York City with the support of her parents for voice study with German soprano Lotte Leonard. While in New York, she earned a Masters in Spanish at Columbia University Teachers College, and was granted a Marian Anderson award as well as a scholarship to the Mannes Music School and to the Opera Workshop at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. In 1950, Ms. Dobbs won a John Hay Whitney Fellowship and used the grant to study French repertoire in Paris with Pierre Bernac. The following year, she won the International Music Competition sponsored by Geneva’s Conservatory of Music. Her international career blossomed with her debut at the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. After a successful European concert tour of several major cities, Ms. Dobbs made her debut in 1953 in a Rossini opera at La Scala in Milan, the first black principal singer. She also made her debut the same year at the Royal Opera House in London, as the Woodbird in “Siegfried.” She later appeared at the Paris Opera, the Vienna State Opera, and at the opera houses of Hamburg and Stockholm. She sang a command performance before Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, and visiting King Gustave and Queen Louise of Sweden at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1954.



Her American debut was a recital at New York’s Town Hall with the Little Orchestra Society in 1954. She made her United States operatic debut in 1955 at the San Francisco Opera as the Queen of Shemakha in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le Coq d’Or.” Ms. Dobbs fulfilled a long-held dream when she debuted on November 9, 1956 at the Metropolitan Opera in the role of Gilda in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” She was preceded the year before by two black singers, contralto Marian Anderson and baritone Robert McFerrin. Ms. Dobbs was offered a long-term contract by the Met as a principal singer and sang in twenty-nine performances over eight seasons.



Ms. Dobbs also performed recitals and concerts at many historically blacks colleges in the South, often accompanied by her older sister, Dr. Irene Dobbs Jackson. Following the example set by many African American performers, she refused to sing for segregated audiences. In 1962, Ms. Dobbs was welcomed back to her hometown and sang in the recently desegregated Atlanta Municipal Auditorium. At the end of the concert, she was joined onstage and given roses and a key to the city by then Mayor, Ivan Allen, Jr. Ms. Dobbs gave multiple concerts at Spelman College from 1964 to 1975. She was Artist-in-Residence in the Music Department at the college for the academic year 1974-1975. She also sang at the inauguration of her nephew, Maynard H. Jackson, Jr., as the first African American mayor of Atlanta, singing the spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”



Ms. Dobbs retired from the stage in 1974 and began a career as voice teacher. Following her year at Spelman, she was on the faculty at the University of Texas, and later at Howard University in Washington, DC. In 1979, Spelman College awarded an honorary doctorate to both Ms. Dobbs and Ms. Anderson.



Mattiwilda Dobbs Janzon was born on July 11, 1926 as the fifth of six daughters to Irene Thompson and John Wesley Dobbs, who were prominent members of Atlanta’s black community. She was named for her maternal grandmother, Mattie Wilda Sykes. In a family where every member sang, “Geekie,” as Ms. Dobbs was affectionately called, was soon recognized as having a soprano voice that was special. “I would never have been a singer if it were not for my father,” said Ms. Dobbs. “I was too shy. He supported me and always encouraged me to go on.”



In 1952, Ms. Dobbs met Luis Rodriguez, a young Spaniard who was in Paris studying at the Sorbonne. They were married the following year and lived for a short while in Spain. Luis died of a liver ailment in 1954. She later met a Swedish newspaperman and public relations executive, Bengt Janzon, in 1957. They were married in New York City on December 23, 1957, attended by Ms. Dobbs’ parents, sisters, and family members. The couple was married for forty years until Bengt’s death in 1997.



Ms. Dobbs received the Opera Music Theater International Lifetime Achievement Award for her illustrious career in the history of opera. She was committed to a new generation of OMTI Emerging Artists, as adjudicator of OMTI International Vocal Competition, and International Singers Forum. She also served on the board of the Metropolitan Opera and on the National Endowment of the Arts Solo Recital Panel.



Ms. Dobbs was predeceased by her husband, Bengt, and by four of her older sisters, Irene Dobbs Jackson, Willie Dobbs Blackburn, Millicent Dobbs Jordan, and Josephine Dobbs Clement. Ms. Dobbs is survived by her younger sister, Dr. June Dobbs Butts, of Atlanta. During her final years in Atlanta, Ms. Dobbs was lovingly cared for by her nephew, Dobbs Jordan, and his wife, Michele Jordan. On her ninetieth birthday in July of 2015, a large gathering of nephews, nieces, cousins, relatives, and dear friends gathered to celebrate her life as the celebrity of the family and as the beloved Aunt Geekie. In lieu of flowers, checks made payable to Spelman College, with Dobbs Endowed Scholarship written in the memo line, may be mailed to Spelman College, 350 Spelman Lane SW, Campus Box 1303, Atlanta, GA 30314-4399.