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In the middle of the 19th century, Jenny Lind gained the sort of fame that we would today associate with megastars such as Beyoncé or Adele. Hers is a rags to riches story lived out during the golden age of the bel canto soprano.

Born in 1820, the illegitimate progeny of a family in marital turmoil, Lind displayed a precocious singing talent that saw her performing at the age of 10. She sang her first major role at the Royal Swedish Opera when she was 18 (Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz) and she retired from the operatic stage aged 29, hailed as an international sensation. Her subsequent concert tours to America in the early 1850s, initially promoted by the great showman and impresario P T Barnum, amassed her a huge fortune, much of which she gave to charity.

In her heyday, Lind had the great and the good at her feet. Among her most fervent admirers were Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, both hugely influential in her career. Queen Victoria held her in the highest esteem, positively gushing at her sensational London debut in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable. The ever-astute Disraeli praised her as representing the best of her age: ‘I know nothing to be compared with the career of this admirable woman,’ he wrote. ‘To me there is something most beautiful in this life of music and charity.’

What leaps off the pages of this beautifully produced biography by Sarah Jenny Dunsmure, the singer’s great-great granddaughter, is that Jenny Lind embodied a Victorian ideal that resonated strongly with her public, inspiring widespread adulation bordering on hysteria. She was no ravishing beauty: her appeal came from a fresh almost sexless innocence and the ability to communicate powerful emotions on stage with a pure voice and unaffected honesty. Dunsmore presents Lind through a careful and meticulous search through records, from tax returns and invoices to letters and contemporary accounts of the singer. The figure of Lind herself is the forensic focus here; the wider cultural and historical social context of Lind’s world is not really part of Dunsmure’s remit.

This is an affectionate, level-headed and close-up view of an exceptional talent that was exercised with wisdom and good judgement – an object lesson in how to survive they hype of celebrity, with dignity intact.

Ashutosh Khandekar Read the full review on Agora Classica


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