Matiwilda Dobbs
In Mozart's "Seraglio" as the heroine Constanze
Mattiwilda Dobbs Janzon

Mattiwilda Dobbs Janzon was the fifth of six daughters born to Irene and John Wesley Dobbs. She grew up in Sweet Auburn, and was drawn to music from an early age. Once, her father met Duke Ellington at Ma Suttons restaurant and convinced the Duke to come to his home and play piano for his girls to their great delight.

After graduating as valedictorian of her class at Spelman College, Mattiwilda headed to New York City, at her father's insistence, to pursue voice lessons. She decided to focus on opera, even though there weren't many opportunities for African Americans in the opera world then. At age 26, she won an international music competition in Geneva, and her career took off. She was the first black woman to appear in a principal role at the world-famous La Scala Opera House in Milan Italy. She played Elvira in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri. Her father was very proud of her accomplishments and carried articles about her success with him to pull out and talk about when the topic arose.

As she became an internationally famous opera star, Mattiwilda continuously refused to perform before segregated audiences in Atlanta - with blacks on one side of the aisle and whites on another. Finally, in 1962, she performed for a desegregated audience at the Atlanta City Auditorium. After her performance concluded, Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. presented Mattiwilda with a bouquet of roses and said, "You have brought great honor to Atlanta by your appearances all over the world" (pictured above).

From the Daily London Express, May 26, 1961:

Mozart's "Seraglio" is a perfect Glyndebourne opera- enhanced last night by Oliver Messel's enchanting designs and a well chosen cast. The only survivor from Peter Ebert's original production 5 years ago is Matiwilda Dobbs, the American Negro soprano, who is practically irreplaceable as the heroine Constanze. She moves through the farcical comedy of captives in a Turkish Harem with the dignity of a goddess and the voice of an angle. The florid music she has to sing revealed her clarity and accuracy of technique, a marvelous sweetness of tone, and eloquent dramatic expression when required.

The above was researched and written by Lauren Keating, freelance writer.