In 1851, P. T. Barnum travelled to Europe, and got one of his many brilliant ideas. All he heard about over there was Jenny Lind, Jenny Lind...she was the most famous singer in the world at that time. Barnum was more cultured than one would think from his populist showmanship, and it occured to him that bringing the "Swedish Nightingale" to the United States could be more than lucrative. Her extraordinary popularity could be a means of introducing the public to more artistic fare than they would normally be prepared to swallow.
Although he himself loved opera and classical music, he never had the opportunity to hear Jenny sing. But he managed to broker a deal with her--she was an extremely savvy businesswoman herself--and over the pond she came for a long series of concerts. Barnum had a moment of doubt that she would disappoint, but it was immediately erased when she sang for the first time. The tour proved successful beyond even his ambitious imaginings.
In early July, 1851, she arrived in Northampton to a packed house. Well, church. Northampton didn't have a proper music hall at the time. It was something of a backwater, and the sold-out concert surprised Barnum. He had warned Jenny Lind not to expect much. However, despite a raging thunderstorm, people came out in droves, and were moreover a "brilliant audience." The Daily Hampshire Gazette
reported, "Jenny Lind was highly pleased with her reception here, as it afforded her more satisfaction than any other in America. The Swedish songstress must have been surprised to find in Northampton a larger audience than in Springfield."
Lind had arrived at 6 p.m. in a downpour, and left immediately afterward, to spend the night in Springfield, so whatever good impression she had was entirely the result of the audience. Returning at a later time to sing, however, she saw Northampton by daylight, and pronounced it "the paradise of America." Northampton was the spot she eventually chose for her honeymoon.
Noho's understandably had a love affair with Jenny Lind ever since. Smith College hadn't even existed at the time of her first visit, but when it was laid out, the pond on the campus was christened Paradise Pond. Northampton is often referrred to as Paradise City.
About fifty years ago, P. T. Barnum's home town of Bridgeport, Connecticut began honoring its most famous citizen with an annual Barnum Festival, in which Jenny Lind has always figured prominently. This year, a competition was held to choose an American and a Swedish Jenny Lind, and the two young women, who had been touring separately, met for a concert at the festival Thursday night. Today, they had no sooner hopped off of parade floats in Bridgeport than they were racing up Rt. 91 to Northampton for another concert. And this time, the Jenny Linds had a proper Music Hall in which to sing.
The Northampton concert was held at the Academy of Music, now the sixth oldest theater in America, acoustically stellar and handsomely renovated. Jenny Lind never performed here, but Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Mae West, Boris Karloff, William Powell, Basil Rathbone, John Philip Sousa, Jeanette MacDonald and Ruth Gordon all did. Harry Houdini's trap door is still on the stage floor; Louis Comfort Tiffany's windows, a gift of the artist, still grace the lobby. A beautiful setting for the beautiful and talented coloratura sopranos.
Malin Nilsson is the Swedish Jenny Lind. She's a student at the University College of Opera in Stockholm, but has already sung many roles at the Royal Opera and other venues. Jennifer Marshall is the American Jenny Lind. She's 27, and has not one or two, but three degrees in music, and is an alumna of Renata Scotto's Opera Academy as well. The two sopranos took turns singing Mozart and Puccini, Swedish love songs and Broadway show tunes. Afterward they mingled at a little reception, and proved to be not only comely and accomplished, but gracious and friendly as well.
If you're not in New York, Paris, or London, it's easy sometimes to feel like you're in a cultural backwater. Or to wonder how your little corner of the world, much as you like it, would stack up to other places. Having a genuine super-famous person put her stamp of approval on it is sweet justification. That's what 19th-century Northampton had in Jenny Lind. And now, in the 21st century, we've got not one, but two Jenny Linds.