The iconic American huckster, showman and circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum is most often associated not with refined high culture but of somewhat coarser forms of entertainment—the circus, yes, but also Siamese twins and various human oddities such as “Zip the Pinhead” and the “Man-monkey.” It was none other than P.T. Barnum, however, who brought the greatest opera performer in the world from Europe to the United States in the mid-19th century for a triumphant national tour that set astonishing box-office records and fanned the flames of a widespread opera craze in 1850s America. That star was Jenny Lind—”The Swedish Nightingale”—a singer of uncommon talent and great renown whose arrival in New York City on this day in 1850 was greeted with a mania not unlike that which would greet another foreign musical invasion more than a century later.
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Depending on which of two conflicting birthdates one accepts as accurate, Jenny Lind was either 29 or 39 years old in 1849, when she first came to the attention of P.T. Barnum. Barnum was touring Europe at the time with the act that effectively launched his eventual showbiz empire: the two-foot-eleven-inch Tom Thumb, whom Barnum molded into a singer/dancer/comedian after discovering him in Bridgeport, Connecticut. While in England with Thumb, Barnum was told about Lind and proceeded to propose a North American tour to her without ever hearing her sing a note. Her once-in-a-lifetime voice, it seems, was of interest to Barnum only insofar as it helped explain the piece of information that most impressed him: that Lind had recently drawn sellout crowd after sellout crowd during a recent tour of Britain and Ireland. On the basis of her proven box-office pull, Barnum sent an offer to Lind that was unheard of for the time: a 150-date tour of the United States and Canada with a guaranteed payment of $1,000 per performance. After negotiating certain payments by Barnum to charities of her choosing, the philanthropy-minded Lind agree to the tour and disembarked Liverpool for the United States in August 1850.
From the moment of her arrival in New York, Lind was a sensation. By applying his trademark gifts in the area of promotion (including not only a massive advertising campaign but also many bought-and-paid-for reviews in regional newspapers), Barnum had seen to it that this would be the case. But it was Lind’s voice and her genuine connection with audiences that made the tour the smash success that it was—a fact even Barnum acknowledged when he renegotiated her contract upward following her first handful of performances. All told, Jenny Lind’s tour is believed to have netted Barnum close to a half-million dollars, an astonishing sum in 1850. But its most lasting legacy may have been the way in which it helped make opera a democratic sensation in America in the decades that followed.