The legend of Mattiwilda Dobbs, Atlanta’s world-famous African-American opera singer

Standing on stage in a shocking robe, she sang for her nephew the previous hymn, “He’s Bought the Complete World in His Arms.”

The story of Mattiwilda Dobbs is a part of the good American story of the household of John Wesley Dobbs, the civic and political chief often called the “Mayor of Auburn Avenue.”

A coloratura soprano, her vocal method was described as pure and resonant as a bell. Her interpretations and stage presence had been legendary.

“She was a fascinating performer with an awfully lovely voice. However she was additionally an especially humble particular person,” stated her nephew Dobbs Jordan. “Ought to might go on stage and assume any function. However offstage, she was the exact opposite.”

Within the Nineteen Fifties, she rose to worldwide fame as one of many first African-American opera singers to carry out on main phases world wide, paving a path for Leontyne Value, Kathleen Battle and Augusta’s Jessye Norman.

However like many Black artists of her technology, Dobbs needed to first go to Europe to be acknowledged for her brilliance on phases in London, Geneva, Paris, Vienna, Hamburg and Stockholm. It wasn’t till after her 1953 efficiency at La Scala Opera Home, that she made her American debut with the Little Orchestra Society in New York Metropolis.

In 1955, she grew to become the primary African-American to play a lead function on the San Francisco Opera. In 1956, she made her debut as Gilda in “Rigoletto” with the Metropolitan Opera – a 12 months after contralto Marian Anderson broke the colour barrier.

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She grew to become the primary Black singer to be supplied a long-term contract by the Met, the place she sang 29 occasions in six roles throughout eight seasons.

Nevertheless it was not till 1962, after worldwide acclaim, that she would carry out in her hometown of Atlanta as a result of she refused to sing in entrance of segregated audiences.

Roses and a key to the town

Born in 1925, she was the fifth of Dobbs’ six daughters, all of whom attended Spelman Faculty.

All the daughters began enjoying the piano at an early age and as a toddler, regardless that she was shy and self-effacing, Dobbs took a eager curiosity in singing. She was solely six years previous when she sang her first solo for the choir at First Congregational Church in Atlanta.

Credit score: Dobbs and Michelle Jordan

Credit score: Dobbs and Michelle Jordan

“I might by no means have been a singer if it weren’t for my father,” Dobbs stated in her writings. “I used to be too shy. He at all times supported me and at all times inspired me to go on.”

She graduated with a music diploma in 1946 from Spelman Faculty the place she was the category valedictorian.

After leaving Spelman, Dobbs gained scholarships to check on the Mannes Faculty of Music and the Berkshire Music Heart’s Opera Workshop. She obtained her grasp’s diploma at Columbia College in New York Metropolis and later moved to Paris to check with Pierre Bernac.

Credit score: Dobbs and Michelle Jordan

Credit score: Dobbs and Michelle Jordan

As a toddler, Dobb’s father forbade her and her sisters from going to segregated theaters, a sentiment handed all the way down to the proud Maynard Jackson. This was a part of the explanation why she didn’t carry out in Atlanta till 1962, when she sang earlier than an built-in home on the previous Municipal Auditorium.

ExploreFrom 2016: Mattiwilda Dobbs: Opera singer defied odds and stereotypes

“She was an individual of precept, who was raised in a family that held such values,” stated Dobbs Jordan. “So being so humble, proud and grounded, you would see why she would by no means carry out earlier than a segregated viewers.”

On the finish of the Municipal Auditorium live performance, Mayor Ivan Allen joined her on stage and gave her a bouquet of roses and the important thing to the town. Within the viewers, her 24-year-old nephew Maynard Jackson, cheered.

Credit score: SPECIAL

Credit score: SPECIAL

A phenomenal human being

“Aunt Mattiwilda was very very like daddy, of getting this robust presence about her,” stated Jackson’s daughter Alexandra Jackson Harris. “I used to be younger after I would see her essentially the most. However what I at all times bear in mind about her was her grace and poise. She was so elegant and spoke with a voice that sounded melodic.”

Of the entire Dobbs’ heirs, Alexandra Jackson Harris is maybe the closest to having adopted in Mattiwilda Dobbs’ creative footsteps. An acclaimed singer and performer, she has launched two jazz albums, together with “Legacy and Alchemy,” which featured Rod Templeton and Al Jarreau.

However she remains to be amazed at how individuals have a look at her in awe every time she reveals that she is the great-niece of Mattiwilda Dobbs.

She additionally remembers household gatherings the place everybody would sing the blessings earlier than they ate. Dobbs was the conductor of the sing-a-long, but in addition basked within the glory of watching her household carry out.

“I by no means noticed ego with Aunt Mattiwilda,” stated Harris, who has carried out at each the Atlanta and Montreaux jazz festivals. “She had this look in her eyes that simply made you are feeling such as you had been wanting into her coronary heart. With the ability to see, in her, the love that she had, made me see how she was in a position to translate that love on stage. And I carry that.”

After Jackson’s 1974 inauguration, Dobbs semi-retired from the stage and have become a full-time school professor, educating on the College of Texas after which Howard College. She retired from Howard in 1991 and from singing two years later.

ExploreFrom 2015: Mattiwilda Dobbs, 90: Singer paved manner for different black opera stars

In 2012, Dobbs Jordan and his spouse Michelle moved the girl they affectionately known as “Aunt Geekie,” again to Atlanta to deal with her. She by no means had youngsters of her personal.

Nephew Dobbs, Michelle and Mattiwilda spent their time watching previous black-and-white films and singing.

Credit score: Dobbs and Michelle Jordan

Credit score: Dobbs and Michelle Jordan

“I can admit now that she was my favourite aunt,” stated Dobbs Jordan. “I used to be blessed to have the ability to spend a lot time together with her.”

Dobbs died in 2015 at age 90.

“What a phenomenal human being she was,” stated her niece Michelle.

The Jordans donated her papers to Spelman, which gave her an honorary diploma in 1979.

One in every of her previous robes is within the Smithsonian.

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