Elisabeth Olin

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Elisabeth Olin
Elisabeth Olin - SBH.jpg
Elisabeth Olin, 1780s
Born December 1740
Died 26 March 1828 (1828-03-27) (aged 87)
Residence Stockholm, Sweden
Other names Elisabeth Lillström
Occupation Opera singer, composer
Known for Referred to as the first primadonna in her country
Spouse(s) Gabriel Olin
Children Betty Olin
Hovsångare, the first female member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music (1782)

Elisabeth Olin née Lillström (December 1740 – 26 March 1828), was a Swedish opera singer and a music composer. She performed the leading female role in the inauguration performance of the Royal Swedish Opera in 1773, and is referred to as the first Swedish Opera prima donna. She was the first female to be made Hovsångerska (1773), and the first woman to become a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music (1782).

Background and debut[edit]

Her father, Petter Lillström, was a musician, an organist, and played in the theatre orchestra in Bollhuset. Her mother, Elisabeth Lillström, was one of the first professional native actresses in Sweden, the prima donna of the troupe and a member in the board of directors that run the theatre of Bollhuset from 1740 to 1753. Elisabeth Olin debuted as a child-actor on the stage of Bollhuset alongside her mother at the age of seven under the name Betty Lillström in the part of Alfhild in Syrinx in 1747, called Sweden's first native Opera comique, and was very popular, often described as one of the most valuable members of the staff even though she was not an adult, but in 1753, the theatre was reserved for the French troop hired by the queen, ending the first experiment of a national theater. The parents of Olin then joined the Stenborg Troupe.

She received training from the leading Swedish actor, Petter Stenborg, in singing, and clavecin training and theory lessons by the court-chapel conductor Ferdinand Zellbell. It was most likely at one of his concerts at Riddarhuset that she made her debut, the date is however lost; she is believed to have been active as a professional concert singer in the late 1750s. In 1760 she married the official Gabriel Olin (1728–1794). The first time she was confirmed as a singer was at a concert by Zellbell in 1761, and she was a popular concert singer in the 1760s. She appeared as a singer in concert in 1769, directed by Francesco Uttini, leader of the Italian Opera-troupe in Bollhuset of 1754–1767 and Royal orchestra conductor, and was at this point very popular among the nobility and often hired for private concerts. In 1768, she published her own song composition;[1] she was one of the Swedish composers who wrote one composition each for the collection Gustaviade. En hjältedikt i tolv sånger (1768) (English: "Gustaviade. A heroic poem of twelve songs"); Elisabeth Olin was responsible for composition number eight.[2]

At the opening of parliament in 1772, the troupe of Petter Stenborg appeared before King Gustav III and all the public in Bollhuset after the French troupe had left, and after this, the monarch decided to found a native speaking opera and theatre.

The Swedish theatre had been made up of foreign companies and was more or less a matter for the court until this time, (except for a brief experiment from 1737–1753, where her parents was pioneers in the first try to start a native-speaking theatre). It was after this that the King decided to form a Swedish theatre, with Swedish actors, and thereby making theatre open to a public who could not understand the tongues of the foreign companies. Thus, the national Swedish Opera was founded in 1773, and Elisabeth Olin was one of its pioneers. As she was married to an official, a Royal court secretary, it was not considered entirely proper for her to perform professionally, and the King then raised the prestige of the opera company by styling it Royal Swedish Opera and appointed Elisabeth Olin first court-singer. At the search for talents to the newly founded opera, the direction "hardly dare consider" to think of her, as she was a part of the upper class after her marriage, which gave her a great advantage in the negotiations. After the negotiations about her salary, Gustav III said, "She holds herself very expensive"; she was the highest paid member of the entire Swedish opera, which gave female members higher salary than the male. Her husband is described as always very proud of her.


Elisabeth Olin

At the inauguration of the Royal Swedish Opera on 18 January 1773, she sang the role of the Sea Goddess Thetis in Francesco Uttini's opera Thetis och Pélée,[3] receiving praise both for her voice and her beauty. Her leading man (Pélée) was Carl Stenborg, the son of her former mentor, Petter Stenborg. She and the young idealistic Carl Stenborg played the lovers in this performance, and very convincingly, joined by her daughter, Betty Olin, who played Amor. She was described as beautiful, with great movements and a voice that engaged and enraptured; he was a beautiful blond youth with a lovely though not strong voice that was pronounced skillfully enough for everyone to hear and giving the Swedish language "a new pleasure". They were, in fact, lovers in real life also. It is said that "everyone knew of the tender relationship he had with Mrs Olin"; this was reputed to be a fact why she had accepted to participate, and the show played twice a week during a period of fourteen weeks for a full house every time. When she at one time was sick, Carl Stenborg was unwilling to play lover to her replacement Charlotte Eckerman until he was forced to by royal command.

In 1774 she played the part of Mechtild in Birger jarl opposite Stenborg in Rikssalen at the wedding of Duke Charles and Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte of Holstein-Gottorp. At the opera of Athalie by Racine in 1776, she was persuaded to take on a speaking part, though she had only been hired for singing parts. Her relationship to Carl Stenborg was used to persuade her: director Zibet writes to the King: "She is with no doubt too tender to wish to humiliate her lover by refusing to take part in a performance, in which he could not refuse to participate", which also displayed a social aspect; Olin had a special position as a member of the upper class, while Stenborg had the same terms as an ordinary actor; though Stenborg was the male star, he was not paid as much as Olin in salary either.

She was the celebrated court-singer in the many opera plays in the Royal Court theatre and an actress at the newly founded opera in Stockholm. Her sister and her daughter were also employed. After only two years of employment, she managed to raise her salary by threatening to resign, and after five years, she demanded (and subsequently received) full salary as pension whenever she chose to retire. It is most likely, that she received the highest salary any woman ever had been paid at that time in Sweden, regardless of profession. In 1782 she was elected into the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and in 1788 she became a member of the academy-committee. She was not only active at the Opera, but also at Stenborg theatre, the theatre of Carl Stenborg and his father.

Repertoire and judgement[edit]

Among her most celebrated performances was Galatea in Acis och Galathea by Händel with Carl Stenborg (1773), Eurydice in Orfeus and Eurydice by Glück with Carl Stenborg, Iphigenia in Iphigenia on Tauris by Gluck and Athalie in Athalie by Jean Racine. She played Silvie i Silvie by Berton and Trial with Carl Stenborg (season 1773–1774), Aline in Aline, drottning av Golconda by Uttini with Carl Stenborg (1775–1776), Procris in Procris och Cephal by Gretry with Carl Stenborg 1777–1778, Clytemnestra in Iphigenie in Aulis by Christoph Willibald Glück with Carl Stenborg (1778–1779) and Zulma in Cora och Alonzo by Naumann (1782–1783); many times she played opposite her lover Stenborg on stage.

She was described as a beauty with a fine figure and suggestive "snake-eyes", and her musical and dramatic talent is described as temperamental but noble. She hated competition and disliked to be substituted by her rival Lovisa Augusti, who was her replacement whenever she was sick or bore children - she had six children - and in 1784 she chose to resign. Her daughter, Elisabeth Olin the Younger, became engaged to her former lover Carl Stenborg in 1782, whom she was still in love with, which was traumatic for her, and she refused to compete with the new star of the Swedish Opera, the Danish-born Caroline Frederikke Müller. The latter was so favoured by the King that he asked her to return to her employment after having fled abroad to escape her creditors and gave her immunity from repaying her debts. Olin therefore retired, officially because of a knee injury, and was replaced by Müller. She turned in her resignation in 1782, but did not leave until 1784; her last performance was as Clytemnestra in Glück's "Iphigenia in Aulis". Her daughter and Stenborg did not marry until 1793, according to rumour because she refused to give her consent to the marriage between her daughter and Stenborg.

She remained formally listed as an opera singer until 1803, but in reality only made very few guest-appearances; one in 1797, when she was asked by King Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden to play Svea at the King's wedding. She was persuaded to give a last performance at a concert in Riddarhuset in 1809, the place where she had made her debut; this was the farewell concert for Carl Stenborg, and also his last performance. Her voice was described as unchanged.

Elisabeth Olin was compared to Francesca Cuzzoni, Faustina Bordoni-Hasse and Caterina Gabrieli. She was called "Sweden's first dramatic artist", "The Swedish Mara" (after Gertrud Elisabeth Mara) and "One of the matriarchs of the Opera". She was the first singer to be called "The Swedish Nightingale", later a name associated with Jenny Lind, and it was widely considered that she could have as great a career as any of these singers if she had only wished to tour abroad, but she preferred to stay in Sweden. A couple of weeks before her death in 1828, Elisabeth Olin performed privately for the famous opera singer Angelica Catalani to demonstrate her voice. It is said that Catalani was deeply impressed.

Her daughter Betty Olin, also called Elisabeth Olin the Younger, (1761–1816) also became a celebrated singer (she debuted at concert in 1770) and toured with her husband in Copenhagen and Oslo in 1794–1795.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Anna Ivarsdotter Johnsson och Leif Jonsson: Musiken i Sverige. Frihetstiden och Gustaviansk tid 1720–1810 (Music in Sweden. The age of Liberty and the Gustavian age 1720–1810) (Swedish), page 373
  2. ^ Anna Ivarsdotter Johnsson och Leif Jonsson: Musiken i Sverige. Frihetstiden och Gustaviansk tid 1720–1810 (Music in Sweden. The age of Liberty and the Gustavian age 1720–1810) (Swedish), page 373
  3. ^ Bertil H. van Boer, 'Stenborg, Carl' in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrell (eds), 2001
  • Henriksson, Alf: Fram till Nybroplan (Towards Nybroplan) Inbunden Tryckt: 1988 ISBN 91-7024-445-6 (Swedish)
  • Österberg, Carin:Svenska kvinnor; Föregångare Nyskapare (Swedish women; Predecessors, pioneers) Signum, Lund 1990. (Swedish)
  • Flodmark, J. :Elisabeth Olin och Carl Stenborg (Elisabeth Olin and Carl Stenborg) (Swedish)
  • Riddarhuset Som Mötesplats För Vetenskap Och Konst Riddarhuset Som Mötesplats För Vetenskap Och Konst (The house of nobles as a place of meeting between science and art) (Swedish)
  • Stålberg, Wilhelmina & P. G. Berg. Anteckningar om svenska qvinnor 1864–1866, 290. Wilhelmina Stålberg: Anteckningar om svenska qvinnor (Notes on Swedish women) (Swedish)
  • Nordensvan, Georg: Svensk teater och svenska skådespelare. Första bandet 1772–1842 (Swedish theatre and Swedish actors from Gustav III to our days. First book 1772–1842) (Swedish)
  • Kungliga teaterns repertoar 1773–1973 (The repertoire of the Royal Theatre) 1974 (Swedish)
  • Anna Ivarsdotter Johnsson och Leif Jonsson: Musiken i Sverige. Frihetstiden och Gustaviansk tid 1720–1810 (Music in Sweden. The age of Liberty and the Gustavian age 1720–1810) (Swedish)
  • Oscar Levertin: Teater och drama under Gustaf III (Theatre and drama during the reign of Gustav III) Albert Bonniers förlag, Stockholm. Fjärde Upplagan (1920) (Swedish)
  • Gidlunds förlag: Ny svensk teaterhistoria. Teater före 1800 (New Swedish theatre-history. Theatre before 1800)( (Swedish)
  • Johan Flodmark: Stenborgska skådebanorna (The Stenborg stages) (Swedish)