Mattiwilda Dobbs, 90, an African American soprano who helped break the color barrier in opera, died Dec. 8 at a retirement community in Atlanta. The cause was complications from cancer, said her niece Michele Jordan.

The daughter of an early civil rights activist, Ms. Dobbs forged a path in music as one of the most admired coloratura sopranos of her era.

Like many African American opera singers born in the early 20th century, she was first fully recognized for her talent not in the U.S., but in Europe.

Ms. Dobbs' father, an organizer of early voter-registration drives for blacks, saw to it that she and her five sisters attended college.

A series of scholarships helped finance her musical training and took her to Europe, where, while singing as a concert recitalist, she won the International Music Competition in Geneva in 1951.

In 1953, Ms. Dobbs became the first black singer to appear in a principal role at La Scala. The opera was L'Italiana in Algeri, Rossini's comic tale of an Algerian governor searching for a new wife.

Ms. Dobbs performed on other major stages across Europe, including at London's Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, where she sang before Queen Elizabeth II and visiting Swedish royals.

Her American debut came in 1955 at the San Francisco Opera, where she sang the lead female role in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel. - Washington Post