Selling The Swedish Nightingale

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When it comes to the performing arts, Americans have often suffered from a sense of cultural inferiority. Foreign artists are considered somehow better—more glamorous, more gifted, more refined—than our own. We have lavished our applause on the likes of Bernhardt, Burton, and Garbo, reserved our stormiest bravos for Paderewski, Chaliapin, and Nureyev, and lost our national composure over Lola Montez, Anna Held, and the Beatles. In the nineteenth century, American opera companies drew best when billed as Italian; even today American performers frequently find it pays to conquer Europe before wowing them in Omaha. The late Sol Hurok was the most successful modern impresario to profit from this fascination with foreign stars. But his triumphs paled-as did those of all his predecessors and their exotic imports—when compared to what happened in 1850 when P. T. Barnum brought the Swedish singer Jenny Lind to America.

High culture was not the forty-year-old master showman’s usual métier. Believing that the American people loved to be humbugged, he built his reputation by ballyhooing such frauds as a “Feejee Mermaid” (fashioned from the body of a fish and the head and paws of a monkey) and a wrinkled old black woman whom he billed as “George Washington’s one-hundred-and-sixty-one-year-old nurse.” But he had nothing against the real goods—provided they could be made to turn a profit.

In 1850 Jenny Lind was probably the most famous performer in Europe. She had everything: a thrilling voice, dramatic talent, and a reputation for piety, modesty, and good works. Her success had been dazzling. When she appeared on the streets of Germany and Austria, male admirers rushed to unhitch the horses from her carriage and pull it themselves. It was said that when she sang in London the House of Commons could not obtain a quorum, and the royal court once postponed its annual visit to Scotland. Even Queen Victoria had thrown a bouquet at her feet in tribute.

To composers like Chopin, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Schumann, and Mendelssohn her musicianship was a revelation. “There will not be born in a whole century another being so gifted as she,” announced Mendelssohn, and he tailored the soprano part of “Elijah” expressly to her voice. Hans Christian Andersen heard her sing in Copenhagen in 1834 and lost his heart to her; he wrote that he had “seen a vestal virgin,” and he courted her in vain for years with stories she inspired (Jenny coldhearted in “The Snow Queen”; Jenny warmhearted in “The Emperor’s Nightingale”).

Born in Stockholm in 1820, Jenny was the illegitimate daughter of an illnatured schoolteacher named AnneMarie Felborg and a good-natured wastrel named Nikla Lind. At the age of nine she was discovered in storybook fashion. She was sitting at her window one day, serenading her cat, when a ballerina’s maid passed by, heard her extraordinary voice, and rushed off to tell her mistress about it. The dancer arranged an audition for Jenny, and she was accepted as a student at the Royal Theater School. By the time she was seventeen, she was one of the most valuable musical properties in Sweden; at twenty she was a member of the Swedish Royal Academy and court singer to the king.

In 1841 her voice seemed to have worn out, and she left Stockholm for Paris to try to save it. She had learned much about acting, dancing, and repertory at the Royal Theater School, but proper breathing and a secure vocal technique had not been part of her training, and too many demanding roles had taken a heavy toll. In Paris, she studied with Manuel Garcia, a renowned vocal teacher who showed her how to sing all over again. When she returned to the stage—more often in Austria and Germany than in Stockholm, to the chagrin of her Swedish admirers—she was a sensation. She then traveled to London in 1847 where, amid new triumphs, she was called “the Swedish Nightingale.”

Jenny Lind and Victorian England were made for each other. In an era when many opera stars were notorious courtesans, the emergence of a militantly virtuous singer (the “prima donna immaculata,” the German poet Heine cynically called her) was a novelty. Other prima donnas may have reigned as queens of the demimonde, but no singer had previously been a houseguest of the Bishop of Norwich. In fact, the bishop’s invitation had required some courage. For a stage performer to be received at court was one thing, at an Episcopal palace quite another. Nor was it universally condoned. “It is very right and proper,” wrote one appalled clergyman, “that jackdaws should build in the church. They have vested interests there. But farewell the primitive purity of the establishment which affords a resting-place for nightingales.” Nonetheless, this was a minority view. Jenny’s demure virtue opened doors for herself and made it easier for performers who came after her to become respectable.