was 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 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 seven, 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 Stravinsky's The Nightingale, in 1952.
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 Vienna State Opera, 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. She 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.