OP0359. LES PECHEURS DE PERLES (Bizet), recorded c.1952, w.Leibowitz Cond. Paris Opéra Ensemble; Mattiwilda Dobbs, Enzo Seri, Jean Borthayre & Lucien Mans. (Austria) 2-Preiser 20010. - 717281200103
“Mattiwilda Dobbs, a coloratura soprano who was the third African-American to appear as a principal singer with the Metropolitan Opera, [had a] voice [which] was not immense, [and] was routinely praised by critics for its crystalline purity and supple agility, and for her impeccable intonation, sensitive musicianship and captivating stage presence. She also had a highly regarded international career as a recitalist, singing at Town Hall in New York and on other celebrated stages, and was especially renowned as an interpreter of Schubert lieder.
When Ms. Dobbs made her Met début, as Gilda in RIGOLETTO on 9 Nov., 1956, she had already sung to great acclaim at La Scala in Milan, where she was the first black principal singer; Covent Garden in London; and the San Francisco Opera, where she had made her United States operatic début, as the Queen of Shemakha in Rimsky-Korsakov’s LE COQ D’OR, in 1955. At the Met, she was preceded by two black singers: the contralto Marian Anderson, who made her début in January 1955, and the baritone Robert McFerrin, who made his a few weeks later. (Mr. McFerrin was the father of the jazz singer Bobby McFerrin.) Reviewing Ms. Dobbs’s Met début, opposite the baritone Leonard Warren, Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times: ‘The young soprano has a voice of substance and quality, well placed and expertly controlled. Her singing is true, flexible at the top in coloratura passages and glowing in texture throughout the scale’. The first black woman to be offered a long-term contract by the Met, Ms. Dobbs appeared with the company 29 times through 1964. Her roles there included Oscar in UN BALLO IN MASCHERA; Zerlina in DON GIOVANNI; and the title part in Donizetti’s LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, for which, The Daily News reported in 1957, the audience summoned her back for nine curtain calls after she had sung her mad scene.
If Ms. Dobbs is less well remembered today than some singers of her era, that is partly because she made relatively few recordings. It is also because her début fell between the historic advent of Ms. Anderson and the blazing ascendance of Leontyne Price, widely considered the first black operatic superstar, who made her Met début in 1961. What was more, Ms. Dobbs happened to have joined the Met as part of the incoming class of 1956-57 - a group of newly hired principal singers that included the titanic sopranos Antonietta Stella and Maria Callas.
Named for a grandmother, Mattie Wilda Sykes, Mattiwilda Dobbs was born in Atlanta on 11 July, 1925, the fifth of six daughters of John Wesley Dobbs and the former Irene Ophelia Thompson. Hers was a distinguished family: Ms. Dobbs’ father, a mail-train clerk, was long active in civic affairs, helping to register black voters as early as the 1930s. In the late 1940s he helped found the Atlanta Negro Voters League. Mr. Dobbs insisted on a college education, along with seven years’ study of the piano, for each of his daughters, and he prevailed in every instance. As a girl, Mattiwilda also sang in her church choir but, retiring and bashful, did not envision a performing career. She began voice lessons in earnest only as an undergraduate at Spelman College in Atlanta. After earning her bachelor’s degree - she graduated first in her class with majors in Spanish and music - the young Ms. Dobbs moved North at her father’s insistence for advanced vocal training. ‘I would never have been a singer if it were not for my father’, she told Look magazine in 1969. ‘I was too shy’.
In New York, Ms. Dobbs became a pupil of the German soprano Lotte Leonard; she also studied at Tanglewood. At the same time, as a hedge against the uncertainties of a career in music, she earned a master’s degree in Spanish from Columbia University Teachers College. Ms. Dobbs was a winner of the Marian Anderson Scholarship Fund in 1948, and received a scholarship from the John Hay Whitney Foundation not long afterward. On the strength of her awards, she moved to Paris, where she studied with the art-song specialist Pierre Bernac. In 1951, she came to wide international attention by winning a first prize in the Geneva International Music Competition. Over the years, Ms. Dobbs also sang at the Glyndebourne Festival in England and with the Royal Swedish Opera, the Hamburg State Opera and the Israel Philharmonic. In 1959, she was one of four Americans - the others were Gary Cooper, Edward G. Robinson and the producer Harold Hecht - sent by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to establish a cultural exchange program with the Soviet Union.
Ms. Dobbs’ first husband, Luis Rodriguez Garcia de la Piedra, a Spanish journalist whom she married in 1953, died the next year. (Only days after his death, she honored a commitment to sing at Covent Garden before the new monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.) In 1957 Ms. Dobbs married Bengt Janzon, a Swedish journalist, and she was known afterward in private life as Mattiwilda Dobbs Janzon. Mr. Janzon died in 1997.
Ms. Dobbs’ recordings include Mozart’s THE ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO, Bizet’s THE PEARL FISHERS and Offenbach’s TALES OF HOFFMANN.
After retiring from the concert stage, Ms. Dobbs taught voice at the University of Texas, Spelman College and, for many years, Howard University in Washington.
Throughout her career, Ms. Dobbs refused to sing in segregated concert halls. She did not perform in her hometown, Atlanta, for instance, until 1962, when she sang before an integrated audience at the Municipal Auditorium there. In January 1974 she performed at another epochal Atlanta event, singing the spiritual ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’ at the inauguration of the city’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson. The choice of Ms. Dobbs to perform at Mr. Jackson’s inauguration seemed almost foreordained, and not merely because of their shared background as racial pioneers. Mr. Jackson, the great-great-grandson of a slave, was also Ms. Dobbs’s nephew.”
- Margalit Fox, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 10 Dec., 2015
“Mattiwilda Dobbs is an African-American coloratura soprano and one of the first black singers to enjoy a major international career in opera. Possessing a small but buoyant voice, Dobbs was admired for her refined vocal technique and lively interpretations.
Mattiwilda Dobbs studied with German soprano Lotte Leonard in New York and later won a John Hay Whitney Fellowship scholarship, which enabled her to pursue her studies in Europe, notably with Pierre Bernac. After winning the International Music Competition in Geneva, in 1951, she made her professional operatic début at the Holland Festival, as the Nightingale in Stravinsky's LE ROSSIGNOL, in 1952.
Dobbs quickly sang at the major festivals and opera houses throughout Europe. She made her début at the Glyndebourne Festival, as Zerbinetta in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS in 1953. Her La Scala début the same year, as Elvira in L'ITALIANA IN ALGERI, also marked the first time a black artist ever sang in that opera house. She made her début at the Royal Opera House in London, as the Queen of Shemakha in LE COQ D'OR, in 1954. She also appeared at the Paris Opéra, the Vienna State Opera, and at the opera houses of Hamburg and Stockholm.
Her American début was a recital with the Little Orchestra Society, in New York, in 1954. She made her Metropolitan Opera début, as Gilda in RIGOLETTO, on 9 November, 1956. Although Marian Anderson had preceded her on that stage, she was the first black singer to be offered a long-term contract by the Met. In eight seasons, she also sang Zerbinetta, Zerlina in DON GIOVANNI, Olympia in LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN, Lucia in LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, and Oscar in UN BALLO IN MASCHERA. She also appeared regularly at the San Francisco Opera in the late 1950s.”
- Zillah D. Akron
"Jean Borthayre is proof that a French baritone can sing with great warmth, full-bodied tone, immaculate diction and fine musicality. Borthayre has it all going for him."
- Charles H. Parsons, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, March/April, 2008
“René Leibowitz was born in Warsaw on 17 February, 1913. Eventually he made Paris his home where he studied composition with Ravel and Schönberg, and also studied orchestration with Ravel. Additionally, he studied composition with Webern and conducting with Pierre Monteux.
René Leibowitz made his début as a conductor in 1937 with the Chamber Orchestra of the French Radio in Europe and the United States. In 1944 he taught composition and conducting to many pupils, including Pierre Boulez (composition only), Antoine Duhamel, and Vinko Globokar.
René Leibowitz's repertoire as a conductor spanned virtually everything, including opera, from the Baroque to the most modern 20th century composers. Leibowitz was also known as an orchestrator. His arrangement and recording of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor for double orchestra is just one of the unique achievements of his in this area. His most famous orchestration is his re-orchestration and recording of Mussorgsky's ‘Night on Bare Mountain’. Apparently the maestro had reservations regarding several aspects of the famous Rimsky-Korsakov version. He even made a special trip to Russia to study all the available manuscripts before creating his own rendition. Leibowitz completely eliminated the fanfares, as well as implemented many other orchestral and musical changes. The Leibowitz version ends with a huge crescendo and is quite powerful.”
- Reader’s Digest