Saturdays in southwest Baltimore had a familiar ring for Tiffany Matthews-Lay and her sister, Melanie.
“As a kid, it was Saturday morning cartoons, cereal and Mom singing,” Matthews-Lay recalled of her mother, Yvette Yvonne Matthews. “I vividly recall hearing her singing ‘Un Bel Di’ [One Fine Day] from “Madame Butterfly.” To this day, I immediately think of her and Saturday morning cartoons whenever I hear that song.
“If you can imagine growing up in an inner-city neighborhood, you didn’t hear classical music blasting throughout the neighborhood, and that’s what you would hear coming from our house,” she continued. "Although [her voice] was loud, it was kind of like background noise. It was our everyday norm. So to not hear it would be abnormal.”
Mrs. Matthews died May 6 at her home in Baltimore of a heart attack. She was 71.
Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, which Mrs. Matthews joined in 2015, posted a nearly two-hour memorial for her on YouTube on May 21. Her death has saddened many who knew her.
“We talked twice a day since COVID-19, and before COVID, we spoke every single day,” said Jim Cox, who met Mrs. Matthews 37 years ago when they sang together in the choir at St. James Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square in Baltimore. “So now I’m kind of lost.”
The former Yvette Hopp was one of three children born to William Hopp and Dorothy Whitaker Hopp in Baltimore — the mother raising them and three more children on her own. She graduated from Western High School in Baltimore in 1965, married Nolan E. Matthews in Baltimore on Nov. 9, 1968, and earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Coppin State College in 1971.
According to a first-person perspective shared in 2018 by Brown Memorial Park Avenue, Mrs. Matthews was well aware of the expectations placed on her by society.
“According to the powers that be, since I was poor, black and female, my chances for success were slim,” she wrote. “Nothing could have been farther from the truth.”
Mrs. Matthews began teaching second grade at Homewood Elementary School. She eventually became the director of a Head Start center in East Baltimore, but gave up the position to pursue her singing career.
Invited in 1973 by a classmate to choir rehearsal at St. James, Mrs. Matthews was introduced to Dr. A. Maurice Murphy, who eventually tutored her in vocal technique and opera arias in five different languages and was a close friend until his death in 2015. She entered vocal competitions and won, participating in performances with the Baltimore Opera, the Baltimore Symphony and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Mrs. Matthews sang with the Houston Grand Opera Company as a mezzo soprano, touring the United States, Canada, Japan and the European continent for almost four years. She also performed 32 times at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and 16 times at La Scala in Milan, Italy.
“I was standing in the same spot that [Greek soprano] Maria Callas, [Italian tenor] Luciano Pavarotti and [American soprano] Leontyne Price had stood before me,” she wrote. “Not bad for someone from the projects in south Baltimore. … I cried like a two-year-old … tears of joy and gratitude. For God had opened doors for me that I could not possibly open for myself.”
Matthews-Lay, who lives in Baltimore, recalled accompanying her mother and sister at the age of 10 while her mother played the role of Lily in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at the Met. The sisters ran around the opera hall and met Sandy, the dog from “Annie.”
“I think that was the first time I realized that she was a big deal,” Matthews-Lay said. “Until that point, she was studying, entering contests, singing, auditioning, and getting jobs, but I wasn’t really aware of it. That was kind of going on behind the scenes. She was honing her craft and becoming more recognized, but it wasn’t something she shared with us. Maybe it’s because we were so young. So it was kind of in the background of our daily lives.”
In the late 1990s, however, Mrs. Matthews gave up her singing career to care for her husband, a double amputee who had undergone triple-bypass heart surgery and was on dialysis, and her father, who had left her when she was 3 years old and was diabetic, blind and homeless after a fire in his home.
In an effort to give Mrs. Matthews a sense of purpose, Maria Hampton, her older sister and the dean of students at the Roland Park Country School’s middle school, helped get her a job in the aftercare program at the private all-female academy in 2000. Mrs. Matthews eventually became the director of the program, a position she held until her death.
“She could have stopped working, but she just couldn’t because she loved those girls,” Matthews-Lay said. “So I’m really thankful for Roland Park because I do think they gave her a new lease on life at that point in her life.”
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Mrs. Matthews became a fixture in the choir at Brown Memorial Park Avenue and at church luncheons on the first Sunday of each month. The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, who has been the pastor there for 17 years, said Mrs. Matthews never hesitated to offer encouragement to fellow congregants, especially teenagers and young adults.
“She had her own struggles at different times in her life where she felt very unmoored,” he said. “But by the time I knew her, she was that person who clearly had the experience of life and the experience of God in her life, and those two things together created in her a sort of wisdom of living and a wisdom of faith that she really shared with people, especially when they needed it.”
Of her voice, Mr. Connors said: “It was powerful, it was operatic. She had a marvelous range, and she kind of flowed up to the high notes.”
“My mom has been there every step of the way for the past 15 years,” Matthews-Lay said, adding that her son called his grandmother “My Nana.” “It’s just going to be a huge loss as it relates to my son.”
In addition to Mrs. Matthews-Lay and Mrs. Matthews-Mack, Mrs. Matthews is survived by her sisters, Maria Hampton of Durham, N.C., and Donna Curtis of Baltimor; her brothers, James and Ralph Howard;,both of Baltimore; and three grandchildren.