The perennially busy Shelley Cooper continues to criss-cross the globe, as she’s in Germany, New York City and the Quad Cities this month, and out to Los Angeles next month to premiere a new one-woman show.

The Augustana College associate professor of theatre arts will perform her new hour-long play, “Jenny Lind Presents P.T. Barnum,” for one night only, Feb. 3, 2023 at Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

P.T. Barnum (1810-1897), co-founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, brought the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind (1820-1887) to America in 1850 for her first U.S. tour.

In the show (for which she received an Augie Wallenberg Grant to help research and write), P.T. Barnum, that Greatest Showman, has put Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, on an exhausting tour of multiple cities that made Barnum extravagantly wealthy and that provided Lind with the funds that she sought to found a music school in Sweden. It’s 1850, and she refuses to be exploited any more, wanting to take control of her own career, according to a synopsis.

She calls out Barnum not only for exploiting her, but for his other sins, like the time he sold tickets to the public autopsy of a Black enslaved woman, whom he tried to pass off as the former nanny of George Washington. Lind confesses her own shortcomings: Despite her reputation for philanthropy, she failed to speak out against slavery.

Cooper has won worldwide acclaim for another one-woman show, “La Divina: The Last Interview of Maria Callas,” which she also wrote about the legendary 20th-century operatic soprano.

Cooper has performed “La Divina” around the world, including Moline’s Black Box Theatre, Off-Broadway in New York, Orlando, and Hollywood.

“I love the art of solo theater so, so much,” she said recently of the new Jenny Lind show. “It’s very similar to ‘La Divina,’ where I have the interview questions in my mind, but you’re only seeing one side of the conversation.”

In nine months of an 1850-51 tour across the U.S., Lind performed 93 concerts. “She was exploited,” Cooper said. “It’s really interesting to play with and I’m excited with where the piece has gone, to not give Barnum that voice. I don’t want people to walk away and let him off the hook like we did with ‘The Greatest Showman’ or ‘Barnum’ the musical.”

Lind never had a romantic relationship with Barnum (as in the popular movie “The Greatest Showman”; she wasn’t glamorous, but godly, Cooper said. She wanted to raise money to open a school in Sweden.

And in reality, the rough Barnum looked more like Harvey Weinstein than Hugh Jackman, Cooper said. In her show, Lind is speaking directly to him, in the same format of “La Divina,” where Maria Callas is speaking to Mike Wallace.

“The through line with this show is, ‘To me, my voice is still the same, and it makes me beside myself with joy when I think about what I might be able to do with it’,” Cooper said of Lind. “Her singing wasn’t just for entertainment. It was to spread love; it was to be charitable. She was very religious, to spread the word of God.”

Lind used her singing voice to stand up against Barnum.

The not great showman

Despite Barnum’s worldwide fame and popularity, Cooper wants to burst the balloon in the new show.

“I beg the question, was P.T Barnum a good person? Beneath his carefully constructed gregarious façade, he was a truly terrible human being,” she said.

Hugh Jackman starred as Barnum in the 2017 musical movie, “The Greatest Showman.”

Starring the immensely likable Hugh Jackman, the 2017 film “The Greatest Showman” tells a “highly sanitized version of Barnum’s days of duping the public and his contemptible exploitation of anyone he could use to make a buck,” Cooper said. ” I’m excited to engage in more debate on this topic while honoring a woman in history, Jenny Lind, whose story, in my opinion, has never been told with honesty, generosity, and the elegance she deserved.”

Most contemptibly, Barnum had promoted a Black woman (Joice Heth) in 1835, passing her off as being a 161-year-old former nanny of George Washington. “He worked her to death,” Cooper said, noting he hosted a live autopsy on her in a New York saloon.

One of P.T. Barnum’s notorious hoaxes.

“Fifteen hundred spectators paid 50 cents apiece to see a dead woman cut up,” she said. “He saw this human curiosity for freaks of nature and wanted to capitalize on it.” Heth was actually about 80 years old at the time of her 1836 death.

“He was actually exploiting them,” Cooper said, adding Barnum brought Jenny Lind (1820-1887) to the U.S. without ever hearing her sing. “She was like the original Beyonce and Taylor Swift.”

Lind was brought to the U.S. in 1850 for the first time, and thousands greeted her on her arrival.

“She represented charity, simplicity and goodness personified,” Cooper said. “He brings her over on a steamship.”

“She gets here kind of under false pretenses. On this tour, 93 concerts over nine months, in geographic locations requiring long journeys,” she said. “It’s insanity. He worked her like a dog. Had she known about Joice Heth, his kind of cheap way to make a buck – he was very pro-slavery.”

Jenny Lind (1820-1887) was known as the “Swedish Nightingale.”

Cooper’s hour-long play is about her quitting the tour.

“She always hated the vulgar publicity,” she said. “A lot of my play is her correcting that, saying, I own my mistakes. I own this Victorian virtue. I will speak up against slavery, I should have before.”

Barnum didn’t care about her, but was just using her to clean up his sordid reputation, Cooper said. “He cared about, this was gonna make him classy and make him money. She was already making a lot of money in Europe with concerts.”

While Cooper is a big fan of Jackman and the Pasek/Paul songs in “The Greatest Showman,” she really doesn’t like how the film (penned by Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks) “glorifies this horrible human being,” she said.

Hugh Jackman played Barnum (1810-1891), right, the showman, businessman, publisher, and politician (who served four terms in the Connecticut legislature and as mayor of Bridgeport in the 1870s.

Cooper applied in 2021 for an Augie Wallenberg grant (to be used on a topic of Scandinavian studies) for the Lind show, and she had a week to submit the application.

She found out in May 2022 that she got the $5,000 grant. Cooper did a staged reading of the Lind show at Augie’s Wallenberg Hall that she admits didn’t go well.

“This reading not only showed me how to right Jenny Lind’s story for history, but to highlight this universal idea of vocational crisis. So the biggest lesson I keep learning on this theatrical journey is: dare to fail,” she said by email. “This advice is easier said than done.”

Solo Fest success

The Feb. 3 show is part of Solo Fest there. She plans to perform it in the QC, as she’s done with “La Divina,” and her one-woman “Mary and Ethel: How I Learned to Sing.”

Cooper (who’s done “La Divina” on three continents, including in Germany, Austria and Thailand) will perform it again on Jan. 17 at the Kraine Theatre in New York City’s East Village, accompanied by Saul Nache.

As the legendary opera singer Maria Callas in “La Divina,” Cooper performed Off-Broadway Oct. 8, 2022 and won the Best One-Woman Show in the United Solo Festival.

In October 2022, Cooper made her Off-Broadway debut with “La Divina,” for the United Solo Festival (the world’s largest solo festival), winning Best One-Woman Show.

She’s taking seven Augie students this month to Berlin, Germany for J-term, for two weeks before heading to New York.

Winner of the 2021 Orlando Fringe Critic’s Choice Award for Best Individual Performance in a Drama, “La Divina” is inspired by the life and work of the dramatic opera singer Maria Callas (1923-1977). Cooper performed it at Hollywood Fringe in August 2021 (winning more awards) and then again in January 2022.

review at hollywoodfringe.org said: “This show is pure perfection, beautifully written with such simplicity and a character beautifully performed by Shelley Cooper, who was fully committed to her portrayal of Maria Callas and telling her story.

“I can see why ‘La Divina’ was chosen as a ‘Pick of the Fringe’ in the 2021 Hollywood Fringe Festival! This show is absolutely exquisite,” the review said.

Cooper’s copious credits include performing with Orlando Philharmonic OrchestraWalt Disney WorldUniversal StudiosChicago Summer OperaOpera Quad CitiesOrlando Repertory TheatreShawnee Summer TheatreRedhouse Arts CenterVarna Opera Theatre, Bangkok Theatre Festival, the Simbiose Produções (MOVE Studio) in São Paulo, Brazil and the Venetian Macao in Macau, China.

Cooper is associate professor of theater at Augustana College, Rock Island.

“As corny as this sounds, I love the MAGIC of theatre,” she said by e-mail. “I love how theatre inspires us to use our voices and stories unapologetically to immerse a collective group of people on a single night; theatre is ephemeral.

“I love being able to create a compelling story without a lot of bells and whistles, but with our imaginations,” Cooper said.

Lind’s QC connections

Jenny Lind had a close link to the origins of Augustana.

The Jenny Lind Chapel in Andover, Ill., is the oldest Swedish Lutheran church in Illinois, known as the “Mother Church” of the Augustana Synod. Swedish immigrant Lars Paul Esbjörn (1808-1870) and 10 charter members founded the congregation in 1850. The first church structure was built between 1851 and 1854.

Esbjörn traveled the eastern United States to petition for money to build the church. Lind, the famous Swedish singer, was on tour in America at that time. She met Esbjörn and donated $1,500 to fund church construction. Esbjörn would later become the first president of Augustana College.

The Jenny Lind Chapel is in Andover, Ill., west of Cambridge in Henry County.

The church was dedicated on Advent Sunday, Dec. 3, 1854. The congregation quickly grew and, in 1867, work began on the new Augustana Lutheran Church about a block away. In 1870, the congregation moved to this new building and the Jenny Lind Chapel continued to be used for various church functions. The small church was named Jenny Lind Chapel in 1948. Today, the Jenny Lind Chapel is on the National Register of Historic Places, houses a museum, and hosts special events throughout the year.

Augustana’s Jenny Lind Vocal Ensemble is a select all-female choir for those wishing to develop advanced choral skills and a better understanding of various styles of choral music composed for sopranos and altos.

The Jenny Lind Vocal Ensemble at Augustana College.

The ensemble’s chosen repertoire — from folk to contemporary, ancient to modern — focuses on moving forward and upward, overcoming challenges and celebrating compassion, according to the Rock Island private school.

Cooper credited Augustana for being very supportive of her career, which has taken her all over the country. Last fall, she only had to miss one day of class while performing “La Divina” Off-Broadway, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

“I was choreographing ‘Don’t Tell Mama’ and ‘Two Ladies’ for ‘Cabaret’ on Oct. 4th, we had a music rehearsal on the 5th, and I got on the plane on the 6th to get there, and I had my rehearsal on the 7th.”

A scene from November’s production of “Cabaret,” at Augustana’s Brunner Theatre Center.

She also directed the Quad City Symphony Orchestra area premiere of the Holocaust-themed opera “Two Remain” in late October. Augie’s “Cabaret” was performed in November.

“It was really busy. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.