V0074. MATTIWILDA DOBBS, w.Gerald Moore (Pf.): Songs by Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, Fauré, Hahn & Chausson; w.Galliera Cond. Philharmonia Orch.: Arias from Le Coq d’Or, Sonnambula, Manon, Lakmé & Rigoletto (the latter incl. Duet w.ROLANDO PANERAI). (Austria) Testament SBT 1137, all recorded 1953. Very long out-of-print, Final Sealed Copy! - 749677113728
“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.
- Margalit Fox, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 10 Dec., 2015