The African-American coloratura soprano, Mattiwilda Dobbs, was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the daughter of John and Irene Dobbs, who were leaders in the African-American community of Atlanta. She began piano lessons at the age of 7, and sang in community and church choirs. She attended Spelman College where she began to study voice. She then studied with German soprano Lotte Leonard in New York City 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, Switzerland, in 1951, she made her professional operatic debut at the Holland Festival, as the Nightingale in Igor Stravinsky's The Nightingale, in 1952.
Mattiwilda Dobbs quickly sang at the major festivals and opera houses throughout Europe. She made her debut at the Glyndebourne Festival, as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos in 1953. Her La Scala debut 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 debut at the Royal Opera House in London, as the Woodbird in Siegfried, in 1953. She also appeared at the Paris Opéra, the Wiener Staatsoper, and at the opera houses of Hamburg and Stockholm.
Her American debut was a recital with the Little Orchestra Society, in New York City, in 1954. Mattiwilda Dobbs made her Metropolitan Opera debut, as Gilda in Rigoletto, on November 9, 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 The Tales of Hoffmann, Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, and Oscar in Un ballo in maschera. She also appeared at the San Francisco Opera in 1955. Following the example set by other African-American performers, she refused to perform for segregated audiences, thus did not perform in her native city until 1962.
Mattiwilda Dobbs retired from the stage in 1974, and began teaching at the University of Texas, where she was the first African-American on the faculty. She continued her teaching career as professor of voice at Howard University in Washington, D.C., before retiring to Arlington County, Virginia. In 2013 she moved to a retirement center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Mattiwilda Dobbs's coloratura soprano was praised for its freshness and agility, as well as tonal beauty. Possessing a small but buoyant voice, she was admired for her refined vocal technique and lively interpretations. She can be heard in a few recordings, notably, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, opposite Nicolai Gedda (who was born the same day as she was, July 11, 1925), and conducted by Yehudi Menuhin, Les pêcheurs de perles conducted by René Leibowitz, and a recital of opera arias and songs, recently released by Testament Records.
Mattiwilda Dobbs lived briefly in Spain, with her first husband, Luis Rodriguez, who died of a liver ailment in June 1954, fourteen months after their wedding. In late 1957 she married Bengt Janzon, a Swedish newspaperman and public relations executive. Janzon died in 1997. Martin Luther King Senior's arranged choice of a bride for Martin Jr. was opera singer Mattiwilda Dobbs, whose father founded the Atlanta Civic League and the Atlanta Negro Voters League. Dobbs was also the aunt of former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.