P.T. Barnum was a great showman who toured the United States with a fabulous circus. His stock in trade was a menagerie of animals including huge elephants, along with unusual-looking people. But Barnum also did a great service to people across America by bringing to them the remarkable talent of Jenny Lind, an operatic soprano known as the Swedish Nightingale.
Johanna Maria Lind was born in Stockholm on Oct. 6, 1820. Her talent was evident early on. According to one story, she was overheard through a window, singing with an exquisite voice to her cat. Lind was enrolled at the Royal Opera School in Stockholm at age 9. She studied dancing, drama, and singing. She first appeared on stage at age 10 and developed her vocal abilities quickly. Lind made her formal operatic debut a few months before her 18th birthday, as Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz. Lind sang a number of other operatic roles at the Royal Opera in Stockholm with great success for the next several years.
Jenny Lind was known for having a voice with a fabulous upper register (range), and she triumphed in coloratura arias, which require great agility and the ability to produce beautiful sounds on the highest notes. But the somewhat lower tones—her middle register—were showing signs of fatigue by the early 1840’s. She traveled to Paris to study with a new teacher. Returning with an improved technique to Stockholm, she resumed her career and soon began touring in Europe, appearing at various places in Germany, as well as in Vienna, Austria, and London, England. She sang such difficult roles as the title character in Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma, and also in operas by Giacomo Meyerbeer and Gaetano Donizetti, as well as oratorios such as Joseph Haydn’s The Creation. After 1849, Lind gave up her career as an opera singer.
Though Lind was considered a great star in Europe, even singing before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of the United Kingdom, she was little known in the United States where she had never performed. P.T. Barnum, aware of her overseas popularity, sensed a terrific promotional opportunity. He signed Lind to a lucrative contract for a concert tour of America. Barnum’s advance publicity resulted in a throng of perhaps 30,000 people waiting on the New York dock for her arrival on Sept. 1, 1850. Barnum emphasized Lind’s virtuous character and charitable activities in promoting her, at a time when women in theatrical careers were often considered less than proper ladies.
Lind sang about 30 performances in New York and then toured throughout the United States, as well as in Cuba, to great acclaim. While performing in Washington, D.C., Lind visited with President Millard Fillmore and his wife, Abigail, at the White House at the invitation of the first lady, who had heard her sing.
Romance blossomed on Jenny Lind’s tour of the United States, as she married the pianist who accompanied her. Jenny Lind and Otto Goldschmidt were married in Boston in 1852, then returned to Europe where they raised three children in Germany and England. Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt performed in oratorios and concerts in Europe until her retirement in 1883. In that year, she was appointed the first singing teacher at the Royal College of Music in London. The Swedish Nightingale died in England on Nov. 2, 1887, where she is honored with a marble bust in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.