Libby Larsen’s opera, 'Barnum’s Bird,' tells the story of the world’s first pop icon.
Art has a pushy older sister, and her name is merchandising. In America, she’s been calling the shots for a long time. Our rock stars smile from lunch boxes, celebrity painters brand themselves, and action figures crowd the toy stores before the action movie sells its first ticket. Pop icons rule — and fine art keeps its place. But it wasn’t always this way.
Libby Larsen can tell you. She can even tell you when it changed — and the man who changed it. She wrote a critically celebrated opera about how he did it, in fact. But first, let’s talk about her.
Larsen is a prolific living composer, boasting more than 500 works across a range of genres. She’s equally fluent in the intimate voice of chamber music and the resonant majesty of opera. Her recordings have won Grammys; her talent continues to win her commissions and performances and the acclamation of her peers.
As Larsen sees it, concerts and recordings are public experiences. The act of musical creation isn’t. A composer first listens — to her imagination; to the rhythms of American speech; to other composers. After that profound, private listening, a composer finds something new to say—and a new story to tell.
A great artist is alone with her art — at least at its birth.
But a pop icon begins and ends with image. And money is the measure of artistic success.
At the dawn of the 21st century, that assumption was getting under Larsen’s skin. “I became curious,” she says. “How did the shotgun marriage of art and commerce come about in America? Who created the first pop icon? Who was responsible?”
Larsen looked into it, and found a surprisingly clear name: P.T. Barnum.
Yes, the father of The Greatest Show on Earth and the inventor of modern four-color print advertising was also responsible for turning artists into icons. The techniques that drew audiences to elephants and trapeze artists also worked for high culture. Barnum was the first to figure it out. Jenny Lind was the artist he exploited to make it happen.
Larsen’s acclaimed opera “Barnum’s Bird” tells their story. Gloria Musicae will present the opera’s Florida premiere April 3 and 5. Under the direction of Joseph Holt, the concert will showcase the Gloria Musicae Singers and the State College of Florida Chamber Choir, with performances by soprano Jenny Kim-Godfrey, tenor Glenn Steven Allen, mezzo-soprano Robyn Rocklein and baritone Luis González.
So why did a notorious showman get mixed up with a Swedish opera star? It was a love of art. But mostly a love of money.
“P.T. Barnum made money with his exhibits, but he also longed for culture,” says Larsen.
While traveling Europe in the 1840s, he learned of Jenny Lind, a talented opera singer known as the ‘Swedish Nightingale.’ She was a sensation abroad, but Barnum was one of the few Americans who knew about her.
He immediately decided to bring Lind to our side of the Atlantic and give Americans a taste of European high culture. And make some money from that, too.
The showman sent his pitch to the songbird, who agreed to a 150-concert tour of America and Cuba.
BUILDING THE HYPE
Jenny Lind merchandising had already filled American shelves before her boat even docked in 1850.
Jenny Lind dolls, Jenny Lind posters, hairbrushes and sheet music — you name it. Barnum even put her name and face on cakes, cigars and soap.
Barnum’s promotional gimcrackery set the tone for Lind’s whirlwind tour through bustling cities and small towns that she’d never heard of. America couldn’t wait to see Lind in the flesh. Once they did, they only wanted more.
Before each concert, the reserved Swedish opera singer encountered an overture of hype: Jenny Lind lookalike contests, song competitions, parades and a thousand other publicity stunts. Eventually, she sang. (That was the point, wasn’t it?)
Lind performed to sold-out concert halls full of screaming fans, who’d never heard her perform. “Lind-mania,” they called it. A personality cult—of total strangers. Lind would read the puff-piece reviews in the next day’s newspaper that felt suspiciously like they’d been written ahead of time and planted. (Barnum may have also invented payola.)
A STAR IS BORN
The Swedish Songbird was arguably the world’s first pop icon. The machinery of fame can be degrading. But sometimes, the money is worth it.
Lind earned about $350,000 from her 93 concerts for Barnum (about $2.1 million, today). From that, she set aside a reserve for herself and her family and donated the rest to charity. Barnum made four times that much from the tour. (A tidy profit, which he invested in P.T. Barnum and all his works.) Cash flow and artistic prestige to boot. Not a bad deal for the showman.
But had Lind struck a devil’s bargain?
“She wasn’t a naïf,” says Larsen. “She was a tough-minded business woman and a great artist. She saw performing in America as a chance to make a lot of money. She was one of the first European classical musicians to do so.”
But after a year or two of non-stop touring, Lind became burned out and disillusioned. She broke Barnum’s contract and began touring America on her own. Without the showman’s support, she never had the same success, but she was able to sing with her own voice.
“Barnum made Lind a pop icon in the public eye,” says Larsen. “But that’s not who she truly was. She was an artist. I think the relentless hype simply wore her down. It wasn’t honest. It wasn’t her.”
ART VS. COMMERCE
As Holt sees it, Larsen’s voice is equally true — a clever incorporation of mid-19th century tunes and classical music from Lind’s world. There’s even the classic circus march, “Entry of the Gladiators,” but played at an off-kilter 5/8 time. He saw the premiere at the Library of Congress, and it made a lasting impression.
“I was immediately captivated by the struggle between art and commerce,” says Holt. “Our approach will be a semi-staged version that remains true to Larsen’s original intent. Our amazing performers will transport you to another world.”
And it’s a world that set the contours of our own.
Larsen’s opera unfolds Lind’s Faustian bargain in alternating shades of quiet inner life and clamorous public spectacle. Her Barnum is no mustache-twirling villain; Lind emerges as no plaster saint.
“My opera tells the story of art, artists and the human soul,” says Larsen. “It’s a story of choices, and the difference between a price tag and true artistic worth.”
If Larsen has her way, you’ll never forget the human beings beneath the manufactured images of today’s pop icons.
“I think Lind represents the original model for touring artists in America,” she says. “Her life sheds light on the uneasy borderline between art and entertainment that persists in American music today. I hear the frustration of my fellow artists when they’re asked to be mere entertainers. Something tells me we’re selling ourselves short.”