One of the most celebrated opera performers of the nineteenth century, Swedish-born Jenny Lind (1820–1887) dazzled European and American audiences with her radiant soprano voice and with an image that emphasized wholesomeness and purity.
During the brief American phase of her career, between September of 1850 and May of 1852, Lind toured and gave vocal recitals; yet she became something different from simply a vocal performer. Her trip to the United States was organized by the great showman Phineas T. Barnum, best remembered today for his association with the circus that bears his name, but the promoter of various kinds of public events during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. He may never have had a greater triumph than his launch of Lind's tour: tickets for her concerts were auctioned and reached astronomical prices, and Lind's image soon adorned an incredible range of consumer items. Barnum profited handsomely, and Lind became perhaps the first person who could be described using the distinctly modern term "celebrity."
Grew Up in Poverty
Johanna Maria Lind, born October 6, 1820 in Stockholm, Sweden, grew up being shuttled from house to house as the daughter of a struggling single mother. Her parents, Niklas Johan Lind and Anna Maria Radberg, finally married when she was 15, but during her girlhood her father, from whom she inherited her musical gifts, was generally absent by reason of his considerable skills as a tavern musician. Lind lived at various times with her mother in a shelter for indigent women, with a Lutheran church organist and clerk, and with neighbors her mother met in a Stockholm apartment building. During what must have been very lonely days, she developed the habit of singing to herself or to a pet cat she had.
One day when she was nine, an attendant to a Stockholm ballet dancer heard Lind singing through a window and rushed to ask her mistress to come and listen. The dancer in turn brought Lind to the director of Sweden's Royal Opera, who reacted incredulously when he was told Lind's age, but was equally surprised when he heard her sing. Lind was enrolled in the opera's training program, and even early in her years of singing lessons she showed a natural aptitude for being on stage—even if she suffered from what would develop into lifelong stage fright. Her mother, whose life was beginning to stabilize, gave her lessons on the piano and in the French language, and those around her began to realize that Lind's talent was something special.
Lind made her formal operatic debut in a performance of Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz (The Marksman) on March 7, 1838. Never classically attractive, lacking confidence in herself, and generally seeming shy and quiet to people she met, Lind was an entirely different person on stage. "I awoke this morning as one person and retired in the evening as another," Lind said (as quoted in a biography by musicologist Eva Öhrström appearing on the Official Gateway to Sweden website). "I had found out what my strength consisted of."
Moving into the home of one of Stockholm's leading composers, Adolf Fredrik Lindblad and his family, Lind made new contacts in the artistic community and gained a strong core of admirers in her native country. (Lindblad became one of the many men who hoped to become romantically involved with Lind but were turned down.) After she moved to Paris in 1841, teacher Manuel Garcia told her that the way she had been taught to sing was ruining her voice. Ordered to take several months off, Lind came back stronger than before. When she returned to Stockholm and sang in the operas La sonnambula (The Sleepwalker) and Norma, she had developed a large range, a luminous vocal quality that captivated even veteran music writers, and an uncanny ability to seem to hover gently while singing quiet passages.
Conquered New Countries
Learning to speak German and eventually English (although the latter language gave her a great deal of trouble), Lind embarked on an international career. She performed in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1843 and attracted romantic attention from writer Hans Christian Andersen there, an episode that was later turned into an opera of its own by English alternative rock star and classical composer Elvis Costello. French composer Giacomo Meyerbeer was one of her early admirers and wrote an opera (Ein Feldlager in Schlesien, or A Silesian Camp) with a role specifically designed for her. The opera had its premiere in Berlin, Germany, in December of 1844, and Lind, performing in various Italian, German, and French operas, won acclaim across Germany for much of the following year. Steering clear of the image of illicit sexuality that often attended opera singers and stage stars in the nineteenth century as it does with today's movie stars, Lind cultivated a respectable image. She often performed concerts for charity. For a time she lived in Munich, Germany, in the home of a prominent intellectual who introduced her to Felix Mendelssohn, one of the greatest composers of the era. Despite Mendelssohn's happy marriage, the two shared a romantic attraction.
In 1846 Lind was signed to perform at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, Austria, the home of Mozart and Beethoven, and the toughest audience she had yet encountered. Showered with applause and flowers after her innovative, spiritual performance of the title role in Bellini's Norma, Lind charmed the tough Viennese audience as it demanded an encore, asking (according to the International Dictionary of Opera), "May I first have five minutes to drink some lemonade?" In addition to her wholesome image, Lind succeeded in creating the impression that she was something of a natural, a down-to-earth, ordinary individual endowed with supernatural talent. That aspect of her image would serve her well when she encountered P.T. Barnum.
In the German city of Aachen, Lind gave three concerts with Felix Mendelssohn, and the huge crowds that turned out to greet the pair's arrival gave a foretaste of the celebrity worship that was to come. That celebrity worship came to full flower when Lind made her long-delayed English debut in May of 1847, before the cream of Victorian society, and went on to sing and to enchant Queen Victoria herself. Everywhere Lind went, crowds of people pressed inward, hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous singer. Often the result was that some of them lost consciousness and had to be carried away to receive medical attention; a dangerously packed-in crowd became known as a "Jenny Lind crush," and her name was also attached to a new locomotive on the London & Brighton Railway.
What would later become known as marketing kicked into high gear. Lind's image showed up on candy wrappers, handkerchiefs, snuffboxes, small ceramic figures, and many other mass-produced objects, and songs and instrumental dances were written about her. Lind, who by this time was commanding large paychecks for her concerts, took the commotion in stride and became attached to England after an initial period of uncertainty caused by her lack of familiarity with the language. It was in England, not America, that Jenny Lind mania really had its start. But it took the fine art of American publicity to raise it to a new level.
Negotiated Own Contracts
One of P.T. Barnum's representatives enjoyed perfect timing when he approached Lind in Lübeck, Germany, in 1849. Uncomfortable with what she saw as the taint of immorality associated with opera, she was in the process of giving up operatic performances and was ready for new income-producing opportunities. Gifted with strong business sense, Lind negotiated a profitable contract with Barnum, who was forced to borrow money to meet her demand that he deposit $187,500 in a London bank as upfront money prior to her departure. Opera in the United States was in its infancy, and Lind was hardly known there, so Barnum's associates predicted that he would suffer embarrassing financial losses in mounting her expensive tour. But Barnum stuck with his plans; he was hungry for new respectability after being associated with such dubious entertainments as the dwarf Tom Thumb and an African-American woman whom he fraudulently claimed was 161 years old and had nursed George Washington.
Barnum seized on Lind's new nickname, the "Swedish Nightingale," and promoted her less as a famous European artist than as a miraculous natural talent. Detractors termed her "Barnum's Bird," but they were silenced as a crowd of 30,000 turned out to meet Lind's ship in New York Harbor on September 1, 1850. Thousands surrounded her hotel, and Barnum began to recoup his investment when a hotel owner paid him $1,000 a day for the privilege of hosting Lind. The frenzy grew as Barnum announced that tickets would be auctioned for her first New York concert; even the unflappable Lind was amazed when the bidding rose to $650 a ticket and beyond.
As Lind made triumphant appearances in New York and then toured the eastern seaboard and the cities of the West along the Mississippi River, the British Jenny Lind mania was repeated and amplified. The list of products to which her name or image was attached grew to include the Jenny Lind crib, still so called today (it is the common wooden type of crib with vertical bars on the sides) and even Jenny Lind soup, an unlikely concoction containing rutabagas and Gruyère cheese. Barnum hawked furniture, clothes, and pianos that Lind had supposedly endorsed, and Jenny Lind polkas and quadrilles flooded music shops. Carefully tailoring her repertoire to America's democratic tastes, Lind sang popular songs such as "Home, Sweet Home" (a tune actually of English operatic origin) along with opera arias. She met President Millard Fillmore, and her photograph was taken by Mathew Brady, photography's first big star. Her earnings from her Barnum tour were estimated at $3,000,000 in her Times of London obituary (other estimates have been lower); Barnum made perhaps five times as much as Lind did.
Finally, after the crowds began to thin out somewhat, Lind and Barnum went their separate ways in the spring of 1851. She hired German musician Otto Goldschmidt, a former student of Mendelssohn's, as an accompanist and conductor and continued to tour, drawing healthy audiences but not stirring the frenzy that Barnum's promotional techniques could generate. The later parts of her tour brought Lind one unexpected benefit; she and Goldschmidt married on February 5, 1852. The couple returned to Europe in May and settled in Dresden, Germany. In September of 1853 Lind had a son, Walter. A daughter, Jenny, followed in 1857, and a second son, Ernst, was born in 1858.
By that time, the family had moved to Lind's beloved England. The rest of her life was fairly quiet, although Lind and Goldschmidt numbered Queen Victoria and Prince Albert among their family friends. Lind continued to perform although her best years were behind her vocally, taking solos in oratorios like Mendelssohn's Elijah as late as 1883. Living at first in the London suburb of Wimbledon, Lind later moved to the Malvern Hills in the rural Shropshire region. She suffered from cancer in the 1880s and died on November 2, 1887.
International Dictionary of Opera, St. James, 1993.
Kyla, Elisabeth, The Swedish Nightingale, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965.
Ware, W. Porter, et al., P.T. Barnum Presents Jenny Lind: The American Tour of the Swedish Nightingale, Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Birmingham Post (England), December 4, 2004.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 11, 2001.
New York Times, January 23, 2000; May 28, 2000.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), April 15, 2001.
Times (London, England), November 3, 1990.
Öhrström, Eva, "Famous Swedes: Jenny Lind—The Swedish Nightingale," Sweden.se, The Official Gateway to Sweden, http://www.sweden.se/templates/cs/BasicFactsheet_5789.aspx (November 27, 2005).
"The Jenny Lind Archive: The Lost Museum," Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, http://chnm.gmu.edu/lostmuseum (November 27, 2005).