Barnum’s Bird is the story of art: in service of humanity on the one hand, and in service of commerce on the other.

The idea of an opera focused on Jenny Lind’s 1850-1851 American tour first occurred to me in 1995. While writing Seven Ghosts, my choral homage to heroes, I came across a letter penned by Jenny Lind to Harriet Beecher Stowe. I had heard of Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” the most beloved opera star of her time. Her reputation during her American tour rivaled that of Elvis Presley or the Beatles. I also knew of several Jenny Lind products, including the Jenny Lind furniture design, but I knew nothing about Jenny Lind, the person. As I studied her letter, I was startled to find in it a truly compassionate human being in service of the equally compassionate Harriet Beecher Stowe. I was consumed with the idea to learn as much about Jenny Lind as possible.

Of course, one cannot learn of Lind without encountering P.T. Barnum. Though he had never met her nor heard her sing, Barnum pursued Lind, until she finally agreed, with a business proposition to come to America for a 150-concert tour. Barnum thus created a merchandising phenomenon unmatched anywhere in the world.

Lind agreed to the tour, stipulating a monetary guarantee of $150,000 (one million in today’s dollars). After setting aside a reserve to support herself and her family, she donated most of her earnings to charity. Barnum, on the other hand, made four times that amount on the tour and used the money to reinvest in himself.

Could this be the original model for touring artists in this country? Could studying this model shed light on our culture’s dilemma: what is art, what is entertainment? As an artist myself, I am intensely interested in the intersection of art and marketing. I wonder why it seems to be difficult for Americans to define art by its own value and merit. I wonder why arts organizations must so often rely on entertainment value in order to entice an audience to attend their performances of abstract art. I worry about the frustration of artists who are asked to create art which has as its end a certain definition of entertainment.

The story of Jenny Lind, a hardheaded businesswoman and a world-class artist, and P. T. Barnum, an equally hardheaded businessman and a world-class showman, is a compelling musical drama. It is also an extraordinary vehicle to gain insight into ourselves as lovers of art and consumers of entertainment.

It is the story of art, artists, and the human soul.

— Libby Larsen

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