Henriette Widerberg was the most recognised and popular opera singer and actor at the Kongl. Theater (royal theatre) in Stockholm during the 1820s and 1830s. She was the first Swedish woman whose autobiography, entitled En skådespelerskas minnen, was published during her lifetime, in 1850–1851.
Henriette Widerberg’s father, Andreas Widerberg, was a well-known actor who was the first to play the title role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Gothenburg in 1787. Her mother, Anna Chatarina Widebäck, had also been an actress for a while and performed opposite her husband-to-be. However, following their marriage she appears to have mainly been a housewife. In 1790 Andreas Widerberg was offered a position at the Kongl. Theater (then called Kongl. Operan) and the whole family moved to Stockholm. Henriette Widerberg, the sixth and youngest child in the family of actors, was born in the capital in 1796.
Henriette Widerberg was accepted as a student at the Dramaten theatre school in 1807. She had already begun to perform when she was just 11 years old, initially only intermittently at Brunnssalongen in Djurgården, and subsequently under director Isaac de Broen at the Djurgårds theatre. Henriette Widerberg’s father died in 1890, when she was 14 years old, and it became necessary for her to contribute to the family’s income. She left acting school early and found employment with Isaac de Broen’s troupe, with whom she toured the countryside. She was musically talented and gained a lot of acclaim for her performance in Nicolas Isouard’s opéra-comique, Cendrillon. She later transferred to Johan Anton Lindqvist’s troupe, who mainly performed within Gothenburg.
The head of the Kongl. Theater at the time was Count Gustaf Löwenhjelm and after seeing her perform as Laura in Slottet Montenero, Hoffman’s opéra-comique, he offered her a job. She made her debut at the Kongl. Theater in Stockholm on 24 August 1817 performing the same role. She immediately became the audiences’ favourite and remained such for the next 20 years. She took over many of the roles previously performed by another popular singer, Jeanette Wässelius, following her departure from the stage in 1820. Henriette Widerberg became the prima donna of lyrical theatre, appearing as Armida in Gluck’s opera Det befriade Jerusalem and as Anna in Weber’s Friskytten, amongst other parts. Her roles in Mozart operas included Pamina in Trollflöjten, Anna in Don Juan, and Susanna in Figaros bröllop, in 1821. She achieved her greatest success in 1826 playing the part of Princess Amazali in Spontini’s opera Ferdinand Cortez. She appeared as Leonora in the first ever performance of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, which was performed in Sweden in 1832. Her performance of the part of Zerlina in Auber’s opera Fra Diavolo in 1833 included a scene in which she undressed – this was the first time a production at the Kongl. Theater had shown such a scene and it gave rise to expressions of shock in the press.
Henriette Widerberg was a soprano and her voice was neither remarkable for its power nor its range but was considered to be soft and velvety in timbre with a singular and highly personal tone. Some even though her voice was more beautiful than that of Jenny Lind. Her acting talent included performing spoken parts, making her particularly successful in the spoken sections of sung performances. She was deemed to be a naturally gifted stage performer and she never furthered her musical training, which she actually got through performing. She had to learn her opera roles by rote as she could not read music. This made her dependent on the goodwill of the musical director and the musicians in giving her time for rehearsals, a situation which caused a lot of conflicts.
Henriette Widerberg was also famous for not being a reliable professional. She would often cancel appearances due to illness or for other reasons. The theatre management also found her difficult to deal with because she would sometimes refuse to perform certain roles. According to Nils Personne she was unwilling to play the part of Elvira in Don Juan because she did not want play the title character’s “former flame”. Although she preferred the part of Anna she nevertheless added that “it is no pleasure to spend the whole evening being engaged to the old man Lindström and to mourn the sw-ne Primme!”. This reflected how it was common for audiences at the time to associate the roles an actor played with that actor’s personal status. Disputes with the theatre management only increased from 1835 onwards. At this time Henriette Widerberg’s private life was coloured by a stormy relationship with Axel Piper, with whom she had a son called Axel and this, in turn, impacted on her career. Following interminable fights with the theatre management she was dismissed in 1837 when they reached the end of their tether. The public, however, took Henriette Widerberg’s side in the matter and demanded that she be reinstated. Henriette Widerberg, being both proud and insulted, refused to sign a contract and decided that she herself would end her employment. At this point she was appointed singer to the royal court. In the ensuing years she still appearead at the theatre as a guest artist. Her last performance at the Kongl. Theater was on 20 June 1840, when she delivered her best role as Susanna in Figaros bröllop. She was only entitled to a very small pension given that she had ended her employment herself. It was slightly increased in 1859.
Following a failed attempt to perform in Germany Henriette Widerberg was employed at Anders Lindeberg’s newly-established Mindre teatern from 1842–1844. However, she had passed her peak and it was not long before she completely gave up performing. In 1848 she opened a foodstall for parliamentarians on Västerlånggatan 38 in Stockholm. When the author August Blanche later claimed to have met her at Ladugårdslandet she was making a living by selling Sicilian soap bars.
Henriette Widerberg’s autobiography, En skådespelerskas minnen was published in two volumes, 1850–1851. This was the first time that a Swedish woman had released her autobiography during her lifetime. Even more remarkable was that she published it using her own name, which also lends the work a particular weight. Henriette Widerberg testified in her autobiography to the injustices she had suffered at the hands of men, as well as the sexual harassment she had endured both while working and elsewhere. There is an apologetic tone to the text and in the foreword Henriette Widerberg explains that she needs the proceeds from the book to provide for her child’s education. She thus presents herself as a good mother.
Henriette Widerberg’s autobiography has been analysed by Ingeborg Nordin Hennel and Peter Henning, as well as by others. Peter Henning believes that the book is presented in a manner resembling that of so-called “ordinary people” who were neither authors nor writers but who still published during the 1800s. These writings did not aim to be immortal classics but rather to make a difference in their day. Peter Henning also believes that Henriette Widerberg’s teasing tone reveals that the text also served as a means of revenge for her.
Henriette Widerberg was known to be sexually promiscuous and she had many relationships with prominent men, including the Marshal of the Realm Magnus Brahe who was close to King Karl XIV Johan. However, she was unable to retain these men’s protection and, according to her autobiography, her many relationships also caused trouble and gave rise to several jealous scenes. When her planned marriage to Count Axel Piper fizzled out and he abandoned her in favour of marrying within his social class Henriette Widerberg succumbed to what today would be termed a case of depression. She remained unmarried and had four or five children, two of whom followed in her footsteps in terms of career.
Henriette Widerberg died in 1872 in extreme poverty, forgotten by the same public who had once adored her.