Thursday, December 10, 2015

Sergio A. Mims: The Telegraph: Mattiwilda Dobbs, opera singer - obituary: Soprano who made her name in Europe, becoming the first African-American to sing at La Scala

The Telegraph: Mattiwilda Dobbs in her dressing room at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, preparing to sing the role of the Queen of Shemakhan in 1954  Photo: Pamela Chandler / Arenapal 

Sergio A. Mims writes:

Dobbs was one of the singers on the first opera recording I ever owned  - Mozart's Abduction from the Seraligo  So she was very important impact on my life. I owe her so much.

Sergio A. Mims

Mattiwilda Dobbs, who has died aged 90, was one of the first black singers to appear at Glyndebourne and the first to appear at La Scala, Milan, where she made her operatic debut as Elvira in Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers under Carlo Maria Giulini in 1953.
Her voice was bright, sweet and flexible, and she was renowned for bringing the stage to life with her alluring presence and seductive singing. After she performed to packed houses as the Queen of Shemakhan in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel at Covent Garden in 1954, one reviewer spoke of her “dazzling brilliance” adding that she “poured out fluent coloratura and dramatic enchantment”.
In 1956 she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, where Marian Anderson had famously broken the colour barrier the previous year and Leontyne Price would follow soon afterwards. Yet because she refused to sing before a segregated audience, she was not heard professionally in her hometown of Atlanta until 1962.
Her professional career had begun in Europe when she won first prize in the Geneva Competition in Switzerland in 1951 despite spraining her ankle on the cobbled streets the night before and appearing on stage on crutches. After starring with the Royal Dutch Opera in Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol at the Holland Festival in 1952, she made a recital debut at the Wigmore Hall in January 1953, after which one critic noted approvingly that “her voice, a soprano leggiero, is tender, almost feathery, in quality”.
Mattiwilda Dobbs was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 11 1925. She was the fifth of six daughters of John Wesley Dobbs, a railway mail clerk who, because the Atlanta public library did not lend books to African-Americans, borrowed books from libraries on his postal route for his daughters to read. After retiring in 1935 he founded the Atlanta Civic League and the Atlanta Negro Voters League. He also banned his girls from going to segregated theatres because it was “no pleasure to go in the back door”.
From the age of seven all the sisters were required to take piano lessons for at least 10 years, yet Mattiwilda was so keen on vocal music that their mother often had to call: “All right Mattiwilda, stop that singing and practise your piano.” Her first solo recital had been in church at the age of six, but she was so nervous that she never stopped leaning on the piano for support – a habit that lasted throughout her school and college years.
She wanted to be a fashion designer and studied home economics at Spelman College, Atlanta, but, encouraged by her teachers, she continued her music and her father agreed to fund her vocal studies privately with Lotte Leonard in New York. She also completed a masters degree in Spanish at Columbia University. A scholarship took her to Paris to study with Pierre Bernac. At first she concentrated on learning the recital repertoire, explaining many years later that in those days “there weren’t too many opportunities for black singers in opera”.
She sang Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne in 1953, returning to East Sussex occasionally until 1961. In 1954 she appeared at Covent Garden as the Woodbird in Wagner’s Siegfried and as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, opposite Nicolai Gedda, with whom she shared the same date of birth. That year she also made her only appearance at the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Malcolm Sargent.


Mattiwilda Dobbs, born July 11 1925, died December 8 2015

Comments by email:

1) Marian Anderson did not break the color barrier at the White House. Please see  [John Malveaux]

2) Thanks, John for the reference. However, take a closer look at the article. Perhaps I’m reading it incorrectly, but Mims is referring to Anderson breaking the color barrier at the MET, not the White House. There is no reference to the White House.  Maurice  [Maurice Wheeler]

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