Barnum, circus, coloratura, hoax, hype, Jenny Lind, Manuel Garcia, oddites, opera, promotion, twins
Many things are attributed to Phineas T. Barnum, some true, some not. Aunt Marie had a fascination for the bizarre as well as history and introduced me to him. Barnum’s collections gave me the creeps, made me sad, or filled me with wonder. He was known for his hoaxes as well as spotlighting remarkable people. He brought the Swedish soprano, Jenny Lind, to the US, and his gift with publicity gave her Beatles-type, rock star popularity. The hype he created meant her arrival in New York City was met by over thirty thousand. She hadn’t sung a note and tickets to her concerts were being auctioned for incredible prices.
I felt an affinity with Lind because she sang in an era when the dramatic or lush mezzo-soprano was most popular and nearly lost her voice from poor instructors, as I did. In Paris, the famous Manuel Garcia gave it back to her. (My voice teacher used some of his techniques to restore mine.) When I was younger, had lessons, and vocalized regularly, I sang the same coloratura material as Jenny Lind, but certainly not with her vocal gift. My voice is better suited to musical comedy, but I always got placed with the altos when I knew I should be signing the high e flats and lightning fast trills. Like Lind, my early teachers had no idea what to do with a coloratura and taught me to sing incorrectly.
Lind mesmerized listeners everywhere. In an age when female performers were known for their loose morals, Lind was reserved and morally uncompromised. When she finished her concerts in the US, Barnum came out and sent the crowds into a frenzy by telling them that she planned to donate part of her payment to charity. Wherever she was booked to sing, the halls were packed, and people were said to have swooned when she sang. It might be because they’d never heard the high notes of the bel canto when it was sung with such sweetness. The eighteen hundreds were know for their mushy romanticism and that’s what she performed.
I’m also astounded by Barnum’s ability to drum up business. He had a gift for publicity, whipping up crowds, and creating a frenzy. Before he joined Bailey and touted “The Greatest Show on Earth” he’d made a lot of money with oddities, like the FeeJee mermaid and the Cardiff Giant. He made living people, who were different and considered socially unacceptable, famous. General Tom Thumb, who stood less than two and a half feet tall, became known all over the world and introduced to royalty. Although Chang and Eng were older when he took them on tour, the famous twins made him more money. Born in Thailand (then known as Siam), Chang and Eng, are the reason we call conjoined twins Siamese. They’d already been seen all over the world. Barnum added the spin of bringing along two of their children.
I wish I had the tiniest bit of P.T. Barnum’s ability to promote. Like many writers, I couldn’t sell a bucket of water in the Mojave. He also had a knack for the turn of phrase. The saying about a sucker being born every minute is attributed to him, but corrections have been made about the source. Not Barnum. He wasn’t quite that cynical. Like Lind, he was an active philanthropist and was said to have a fondness for children and strong wish to make people happy. If nothing else, he certainly kept the world amazed.
“Every crowd has a silver lining.” P.T Barnum and “Without promotion, something terrible happens…nothing!”
Next time, Chang and Eng, who were successful farmers, married, and had twenty-one children.