Few artists in the long history of The National Theatre have wielded so much influence in so short a time as Jenny Lind. Known internationally as “the Swedish Nightingale,” Lind sang in a grand total of two concerts at The National in the winter of 1850, yet those two performances effectively justified the expensive renewal of a site that had, only a few years previously, been burnt to a crisp. Apart from her natural talents and charitable reputation, Lind’s success can largely be credited to the rapturous reception that greeted her arrival in the United States. The Nightingale was, for all intents and purposes, already a major celebrity by then – and, in some ways, a groundbreaking sensation.
Lind was born October 6th, 1820 in Stockholm and raised by a single mother. She was accepted into Sweden’s Royal Theatre School at the age of nine and began training for the opera as a tween. After gaining significant renown throughout Scandinavia, Lind eventually moved to London, where she spent two highly successful years, marking the beginning of what would eventually become a trans-Atlantic “Lindomania.” Among Lind’s many admiring patrons was none other than Queen Victoria herself, who was in attendance for both Lind’s London debut and her final bow in 1849. In addition to winning famous fans and collaborating with the likes of composer Felix Mendelssohn, Lind had a number of high-profile would-be suitors, including famed storyteller Hans Christian Andersen and pianist/composer Frederic Chopin. Lind rebuffed their advances, however, and maintained focus on her music career, an indication of how seriously she took her craft. (Apparently, Andersen was so stung by her refusal that it inspired his fairytale “The Snow Queen,” later the foundation for the Disney film Frozen.)
By the time Lind retired from opera at the age of 28, she was already much admired all across Europe. The United States, however, remained uncharted territory. Enter P.T. Barnum, the famous showman known for his (truly) unbelievable shows and worldly wonders, as well as the future co-founder of the highly successful Barnum and Bailey Circus. Barnum sought to elevate his profile and decided bringing the Swedish Nightingale to American shores was just the thing to do. First, he had to persuade her, which required paying her hefty fee – $187,000 at the time, roughly equivalent to $6.2 million today – up front. Then, he had to ensure the public was ready to receive her, which he did by starting a groundbreaking publicity campaign that involved getting Lind’s name into every publication available. Barnum worked tirelessly, and understandably so, considering he had staked his entire future on Lind’s success.
Thankfully for Barnum, his blitz paid off. Lind arrived by ship in New York City and was greeted by a throng of 40,000 people. That massive welcome kicked off a hugely successful tour, nearly every stop of which featured famous and influential visitors, as well as masses of people serenading Lind. Apparently, one group of young men even absconded with her carriage and dragged it through the streets to the cheers of adoring onlookers! As the tour geared up, erchandise bearing her name and likeness proliferated all across the country: hats, bonnets, sheet music, chewing gum, soap, cigars, you name it. Lind’s influence was so huge, in fact, that numerous streets, schools, libraries, and even entire towns still bear her name across the United States.
Needless to say, an occasion like Lind’s tour required a visit to the nation’s capital. Unfortunately, there was no suitable place for her to perform (Barnum had rather cheekily requested the Capitol building, which was quickly vetoed). Instead, Henry Willard, of the famous Willard’s Hotel, and mail-coach magnate James “Land Admiral” Reeside decided to purchase the grounds of the original National Theatre and rebuild it in anticipation of Lind’s visit. By the time Lind made a relatively subdued arrival by train, the theatre was mostly completed, barring some plaster on the walls. The Washington elite responded as if it were a state occasion, welcoming Lind into both chambers of Congress and showering her with impressive gifts. On December 16th and 18th of that year, Lind sang in front of a packed house including President and Mrs. Fillmore, numerous members of Congress, the entire Cabinet, and several Supreme Court justices. Daniel Webster, noted American orator, was especially happy to be there: despite arriving late to the second concert, Webster bowed after each performance and even eagerly (maybe drunkenly) sang along to “Hail Columbia.” All told, Lind’s performances earned the staggering sum of $15,385 (equivalent to roughly $507,724 today), an impressive amount of money that validated the reestablishment of The National Theatre. As you will know from reading A Brief History of The National Theatre, the institution has been through its fair share of trials, and there were plenty more in store following Lind’s departure. However, the Swedish Nightingale’s famous visit ensured that coming back strong after a stumble became The National’s signature move.
Eventually, an exhausted Lind was forced to exercise a clause in her contract that allowed her to quit early. Unfortunately, her next tour was far less successful without Barnum at her side. It should be noted here that, despite numerous rumors and a romantically charged depiction in the (largely fantastical) musical film The Greatest Showman, Lind and Barnum were never more than friends, and may have been little more than business partners. In fact, by the time Lind attempted her second American tour, she was already married to Otto Goldschmidt, her accompanist, with whom she enjoyed a loving and stable relationship. The two eventually settled in England with her children, and Lind enjoyed numerous other major concerts and high-society occasions, as well as charitable endeavors, up until her death in 1887. For all Lind’s international success, The National Theatre is especially thankful for the role she played in ensuring it continued its own long and illustrious life.
The year 1850 was an eventful one in the United States. Prior to Lind’s arrival, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, a collection of laws that decided not only which new territories would permit slavery, but also ensured, through the Fugitive Slave Act, that federal officials were empowered to aid in the recapture of African Americans who had escaped bondage. These two topics – the ongoing debates over slavery and the arrival of Jenny Lind – dominated newspaper coverage for much of the year. Though it seems like they are completely different issues, the fact that the two vied for public attention meant they were destined to intersect. Indeed, Lind faced a lot of pressure to speak out against slavery and lend her platform to the abolitionist cause, an opportunity that largely went untaken. As this article from Smithsonian magazine outlines, Lind’s true views on abolition were difficult to determine, and may in fact have changed over time. Read the article to learn more and then ponder this question: what should we expect of people in Lind’s position? Does fame require someone to use their notoriety to address social issues? What are some successful examples – or maybe some unsuccessful examples – of famous figures attempting to influence political and social affairs?
Greene, Bryan. “When Opera Star Jenny Lind Came to America, She Witnessed a Nation Torn Apart Over Slavery.” Smithsonian Magazine Online. Smithsonian Magazine, 6 October, 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/jenny-lind-swedish-opera-star-slavery-180975990/.
Kellem, Betsy Golden. “The Greatest Showman: The True Story of P.T. Barnum and Jenny Lind.” Vanity Fair Online. Vanity Fair, 22 December, 2017, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/12/greatest-showman-hugh-jackman-p-t-barnum-jenny-lind.
Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
Maude, Jenny Maria Catherine Goldschmidt. The Life of Jenny Lind. Salem, N.H.: Opera Biographies, 1984.