Kategoriarkiv: Theater and Opera

4. Laetitia (Letty) Backman (Norman) and the Royal Theatre

The Royal Theatre (Gustavianska Operahuset)

The theatre was a magical place. It was a world like no other. Letty loved the times she was allowed to come with her father to the theatre. Later in life, when she reflected on her happy childhood, there was one memory that stood out. It would have been in 1839 because she remembered that she was almost 12 years old.

Her father, the director of the Royal Theatre, had just returned home from a visit to the Royal Palace. He was in a great mood and had asked if she wanted to see a final rehearsal at the theatre the following day. The opera, Robert of Normandy, was to open in two days.

The next day, she and her father arrived at the Royal Theatre and her father introduced her to the women performers. She remembered the opera singers, Mathilda Gelhaar, Jenny Lind, and Mina Fundin, the actress Charlotta Almlöf, and the ballerinas, Sophie Daguin and Adolfina Fägerstedt. They were so friendly and lively. They were not stodgy like the women who would come to visit her mother. And oh, were they beautiful! The only disappointment, and surprise, was that they did not wear their costumes at the dress rehearsal. She had so much looked forward to seeing the women’s dresses.

Letty got to choose where to sit, and she picked the first row on one of the balconies. She could see her father walk around on stage in his slippers, talking to the actors. Then the curtains closed and in the dim light from the oil lamps in the large chandelier, she waited. She could see the orchestra getting ready and the conductor looking out over the musicians and their shiny instruments. Robert of Normandy was an opera in five acts by composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. He had named the opera, Robert le Diable, but in Stockholm, they had given it a different name.

As the conductor raised his baton, the music started and the main curtain was raised. The illuminated stage revealed a beautifully painted backdrop. And on stage was a group of men. One of them was supposed to be Robert, but it wasn’t obvious who it was as they were still in their regular clothes. She remembered the chills when they started singing. Oh, could they sing! Letty forgot her disappointment that they were not in costume because it didn’t matter. She was mesmerized. If she only had the talent, she would love to work at the theatre when she grew up.

Watching Robert of Normandy became one of her most cherished childhood memories. Maybe because it was the first opera she saw at the theatre, and maybe it was because she felt like she had been part of the theatre family.

Many years later, when she saw Jenny Lind, who had become an international sensation, she remembered Lind’s performance as Alice in Robert of Normandy. It had been one of Jenny Lind’s first major performances.

Laetitia (Letty) Charlotta Juliania Backman

Letty Backman was listed as number 4 of the girls who got confirmed in St Jacob’s church. That should have been no surprise as her father was a colonel, an adjutant to King Carl XIV Johan, and the Director of the Royal Theatre (the opera house in Stockholm).

Letty was born on 11 July 1827 to Alexis Backman (1794-1871) and Lovisa Christina Strömbäck (1797-1873). She had a 2-year younger brother, named Alexis after his father. In 1844, when Letty was attending confirmation classes, the family lived at Mäster Samuels Gränd No. 48. That was two houses away from where Augusta’s friend Lotten lived. Letty’s father’s last year as director of the theatre was in 1844. The same year, Alexis Backman became the Postal Inspector in the town of Gävle, and the family left Stockholm.

Two years later, on October 12, 1846, Letty married Carl Magnus Norman in Gävle. Carl Magnus was born in Falun but was a wholesale merchant in Gävle. Carl Magnus and his older brother August were both in the business of trade, but Carl Magnus seemed to have embraced more risky businesses. He was even described as a swindler. In 1849, he was forced to declare bankruptcy and many, included his brother who had lent him large amounts for his lofty businesses, were affected by the bankruptcy.

In 1857, Letty, Carl Magnus, and their one-year-old daughter Lilia (Lilli) moved to Stockholm. They were doing well and got an apartment at a prestigious address – the corner of Drottninggatan and Karduansmakaregränd, just a few blocks from the Royal Theatre. I can imagine Letty’s excitement about that move! She was back home, and she was still young, only 30 years old.

She would raise her children here, and someday, when they were old enough, she could take them to the theatre.

Little Lilia Blenda was born in 1856. Then came Carl Justus, born in 1859, followed by Alexis in 1867, and Anna Laeticia in 1869. By that time, they had moved to Nya Kungsholmsbrogatan 23, which was just kitty-corner to their old home.

In 1884, Carl Magnus died at the age of 68. He had been ill for some time and the cause of death was recorded as an organic heart defect. Letty died 9 years later, in 1893, and at the age of 65.

Augusta’s acquaintance, Erik Edholm, Theatre Director Alexis Backman, and Sophie Daguin. Drawing by Fritz von Dardel


Letty’s father, Alexis Backman, Postal Inspector in Gävle


Alexis Backman, gouache painting, 1850



Plays performed at the Royal Theatre during 1839-1840:


About the actresses at the Royal Theatre:





About Robert le Diable:



An interesting and entertaining piece about the Royal Theatre (in Swedish):


About theatre contracts and women’s theatrical costumes (in Swedish):

In the 1830s, women actresses were supposed to provide their own costumes for contemporary plays. Wearing the latest fashion was therefore important but costly for the underpaid actresses. Some actresses, like Sophie Daguin and Emilie Högqvist, became mistress to wealthy men, which helped with their expenses. The following thesis (in Swedish) deals with the topics of theatre contracts and the history of theatrical costume in Sweden:


A memoir by a Swedish actress (in Swedish):

Henriette Wideberg: En skådespelerskas minnen.


About Carl Magnus Norman and his businesses (in Swedish):



Additional Sources (contemporary diaries):

Letty was a good friend of Marie-Louise Forsell, who kept a detailed diary which was published posthumously. Letty is often at Marie-Louise’s house and in the company of some of the other girls in the confirmation class.

Heijkenskjöld, Syster, ed. 1915. Sällskapslif och hemlif i Stockholm på 1840-talet: ur Marie-Louise Forsells dagboksanteckningar. Stockholm: Bonnier.   (Translation of title: Social Life and Home Life in Stockholm in the 1840s: From Marie-Louise Forsell’s Diary Notes).


Lotten Ulrich, who lived at the Royal Palace, describes in her diary how Alexis Backman invited her and her family to attend the rehearsal of Robert of Normandy. Much of what I imagine Letty would have experienced, if she indeed had been invited, is from Lotten Ulrich’s diary. Lotten and her family were also invited to see the premiere of the opera two days later.

In addition, Lotten describes how Alexis Backman lent them props for their own theatre productions at the palace. He seems to have been a very jovial person.

Östman, Margareta. 2015. Systrarna Ulrichs dagböcker – från Stockholms slott, Djurgården och landsorten 1830-1855. Stockholm: Carlssons.   (Translation of title: The Ulrich Sisters’ Diaries – from Stockholm’s Palace, Djurgården, and the Countryside 1830-1855).



The Moving Panoramas


Henry Lewis’ painting of the Mississippi from Pikes Peak, Iowa (illustration from book)

Imagine a canvas that is over 4 miles (or 6.4 km) long!

In the mid-1800s, a few artists painted landscapes on such long canvases. Of course, if you wanted to do an accurate painting of the Mississippi River for example – or at least 1,000 miles of it – you probably needed a few miles of canvas.

Panoramas depicting landscapes and famous battles were already popular in the 1800s. They were displayed in theaters and assembly halls. But what if you wanted to make the viewer actually experience a river cruise? Seeing the changing scenery from the railing of a steamboat on the Mississippi?

The moving panorama – the virtual reality shows of the 1800s

A couple of months ago, my two daughters and I tried virtual reality provided by Dreamscape. We donned goggles and computer backpacks and attached sensors to our hands and feet and then entered a 3D world that was stunningly beautiful. Not only were we immersed in this 3D world, but we could also interact with it.

Advertisement for Dreamscapes Virtual Reality experiences

The moving panoramas were the virtual reality shows of the 1800s. The ads for Dreamscape, ”Experience things you thought were fantasy. Be transported to places you couldn’t have imagined existed,” sound similar to the ads for the moving panorama shows. Europeans could now experience the Mississippi River or the Niagara Falls or New York.

So what were moving panoramas? Like a scroll, the panorama was painted on a long canvas which was attached to two spools. The image was then advanced by cranks so that the scenes would pass behind a huge frame. Music was added by live performers and the show was narrated so that the viewers would get a full understanding of the changing scenes.

Queen Victoria and her family watching a moving panorama

Risley’s Mississippi shown at De la Croix’s large salon in Stockholm

How did I get interested in moving panoramas?

One day, I was searching Swedish newspapers for an obituary of one of Augusta’s friends. I assumed it would be in a newspaper in April 1852. I was correct; I found it. But next to the obituary was an advertisement for Risley’s Mississippi. The ad stated that for 3 more days, Mr. Risley would show a moving panorama, the size of 60,000 square feet depicting 4000 miles of America. The show would take 2 hours.

Risley’s advertisement in Aftonbladet 8 Oct 1852

Who was Mr. Risley?

I searched for Mr. Risley in newspapers and books and found a similar ad in a London newspaper in 1848:

Risley’s advertisement in London, 1849

Richard Risley Carlisle (1814-1874) was first and foremost an American circus acrobat and juggler. He traveled all over the world and performed under the name of Professor Risley.

Professor Risley performing with his two sons

In 1848, Risley partnered with a panorama painter, John Rowson Smith, and traveled to Europe with Smith’s panorama, The Mississippi.

The painter of the panorama, John Rowson Smith (1810-1864), grew up in Brooklyn. His father, John Rubens Smith was a British painter and printmaker. It is unclear how John Rowson decided to paint the Mississippi river but it was around the same time that another landscape painter, John Banvard, was also painting a moving panorama of the Mississipi. The two were rivals as were others who realized that this new form of entertainment was lucrative. John Banvard was extremely successful showing his panorama in London. While John Banvard was both a painter and a showman, Risley was the entertainer who brought John Smith’s panorama to theatres and social halls around Europe. And the panorama got stellar reviews by the London press:

The only surviving moving panorama of the Mississippi

In all, 7 different moving panoramas of the Mississippi were produced by various artists. Nothing is documented about the destiny of John Rowson Smith & Risley’s panorama. John Banvard’s panorama was most likely cut up and used as theatre backdrops.

Banvard’s painting of the Ohio River

Only one moving panorama of the Mississippi still exists. It was painted by John J Egan and commissioned by Wilson Dickeson. It is presently housed at St. Louis Art Museum. A portion of it was filmed in 2015 and can be viewed here.

Making your own moving panorama

While searching for Risley’s Mississippi, I landed on a fantastic website: The Crankie Factory. Besides finding information about the moving panoramas of the Mississippi, I also got inspired by the idea of making simple moving-picture machines for small moving panoramas – “crankies”. If you are home with young kids, there are instructions on how to build simple crankies and there are links to watching crankies. Here is a beautiful and pretty elaborate one made by Meg and Ian Chittenden and the 8th grade class of the Bay School, a Waldorf school on the coast of Maine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99wznzKuYd4.

And so much more…

Here are some additional reading

…about Professor Risley:




…about John Banvard


…about another panorama painter, Henry Lewis, and his paintings of the Mississippi


Fritz von Dardel paints Augusta’s lieutenants – and tags them

I was actually going to write about Augusta’s first love. Then I got curious about all the young men who were interested in her. In 1845, Augusta was 18 and her admirers, who had just started their military careers, were in their late 20s. Augusta and her best friend Lotten Westman met them at balls, theatres, and concerts. After Augusta left Stockholm, Lotten wrote letters which included the latest gossip.

Gossip about Bergenstråhle, Löwegren, Edholm, and Bildt.

Lotten to Augusta, Stockholm, October 1845

”I saw all your admirers at Gunther’s concert last Tuesday – Bergenstråhle, Löwegren, Edholm, etc, etc., as I believe there is a multitude of them. Do you know, I made a startling discovery that Knut Bergenstråhle has ”moonlight” on top of his head. I sat on the balcony, thus high above them all, and made that little discovery. Lieutenant Löwegren looks like ”world contempt and bitterness” when you see him out on town and I think he has become completely transparent tout pour nous.”

Lotten to Augusta, Stockholm, 18 December 1845

Sketch of couples on their way to a masquerade ball. Fritz von Dardel 1842.
Sketch of couples on their way to a masquerade ball. Fritz von Dardel 1842.

”All your admirers, the Bergenstråhles, Löwegren, Bildt, and God only knows the rest of them, were at the masquerade ball at Carlberg and {unreadable verb} the masked ones. They themselves were not wearing masks; it would have been a shame to put masks on such beautiful faces.”

Lotten to Augusta, Stockholm, 7 April 1847.

”Lieutenant Bergenstråhle was at Ekströms and I had the honor to “gallop” with Lieutenant Knut. Lieutenant Löwegren was also there. Seriously, I like him and he looks rather handsome.”

Fritz von Dardel paints the social scenes

What did these young lieutenants look like?

Enter Fritz von Dardel.

Von Dardel was a contemporary, well-connected nobleman who had a passion for drawing and painting social scenes. He was the same age as Augusta’s lieutenants and attended the same social events. In a world before cameras, he recorded the events in sketches and paintings. Many times he included himself in the painting. And he was ahead of his time by tagging people in his paintings by writing their names in the margins.

In the picture below, Augusta’s friend Lieutenant Edholm is the young man in the middle (as tagged).

The Coronation Ball Given by the Nobles, 16 Oct 1844. Painting by Fritz von Dardel. Lieutenant Erik af Edholm is dancing with the voluptuous woman in the middle.


In the picture below, Augusta’s friend Knut Bergenstråhle is the young lieutenant holding the hand of the young girl dressed in yellow. Did Augusta attend this ball?

The Amaranth Ball, 6 January 1845. Painting by Fritz von Dardel. Knut Bergenstråhle is the young lieutenant in the middle.
The Amaranth Ball, 6 January 1845. Painting by Fritz von Dardel. Knut Bergenstråhle is the young lieutenant in the middle.

Fritz von Dardel also painted Lieutenant Löwegren as he was playing piano at some social gathering.

Ludvig Löwegren by Fritz von Dardel
Ludvig Löwegren by Fritz von Dardel

So what became of Augusta’s lieutenants?

Knut (b. 1816) and his brother Claes (b. 1819) Bergenstråhle became army officers.

Ludvig Löwegren (b. 1817) became an army officer, a pianist, and a composer.

Erik af Edholm (b. 1817) became an officer, marshal at the court of King Karl XV, and director of the Royal Theatre.

Gillis Bildt (b. 1820) became prime minister of Sweden in 1888.

Augusta's lieutenants later in life. Top row: Knut and
Augusta’s lieutenants later in life.
Top row: Knut and Claes Bergenstråhle.
Bottom row: Löwegren, Edholm, and Bildt.






Marie Taglioni, the Swedish ballerina

In July of 1847, Augusta and her mother visited the opera in Berlin.

Berlin, 3 July 1847

After we had left Kroll’s garden, we went to the Opera where we saw the best arranged ballet I have ever seen, and where we had the opportunity to admire Madame Taglioni’s enchanting pas.

So what ballet did they see, and who was Madame Taglioni? After a lot of googling, I still can’t find what performance they saw.

But Madame Taglioni was a super star.

Marie Taglioni was Swedish, born in Stockholm in 1804. Her father was a famous dancer and choreographer, and he was also her teacher. Marie and her father left Sweden for Vienna in 1818 and she had her first performance in 1822.

Marie Taglioni’s foot

In the early 1800s, ballerinas started to dance on their toes. Marie Taglioni was the first ballerina to dance a full-length ballet en pointe. However, at this time, there were no pointe shoes. There are anecdotes about Marie darning the front of her ballet slippers so that they would provide more support.

Her most famous role was in La Sylphide in 1832. She was soon as famous as her Swedish contemporary singer, Jenny Lind. Colored prints and etchings of her in various roles were in high demand.

How exciting it must have been for Augusta to see Marie Taglioni at the Royal Opera in Berlin in 1847. Marie Taglioni was at the top of career – she retired later that year.

Portrait of Marie Taglioni with lapdog. 1842. Edwin Dalton Smith (U.K., 1800-1866)

Read more about Marie Taglioni’s life and about the history of Romantic Ballet at the blogs and links below. It’s a window to the past:






A Tale of the Queen of Navarre

Diaries are different. They are kept to document memories in real time. They are not like letters. Letters are written to let someone know what you have experienced. Diaries are for yourself; letters are for other people.

The interior of Gustav IIIs Opera House

When I read Augusta’s diary, I am sometimes surprised at what she doesn’t describe or discuss. On 10 March 1851, she went to the Royal Theatre (housed in Gustaf IIIs Opera House) in Stockholm and saw a play. She didn’t write anything about the performance; of more importance was the fact that a count escorted her home.

Stockholm, March 1851

”Since Saturday evening I am here in Stockholm, our Swedish Paris, the dance-hungry’s Eldorado.” 

”Monday morning I went to visit Ribbingens and Bohemans. They were overly astonished to see me so unexpectedly in the Capital City, and in the evening we saw the great opera, “A Tale of the Queen of Navarre.” There I met Count Figge Schwerin, who escorted me home and was quite himself, much disposed to let his lady alone carry on the conversation and himself look like he was sleepwalking.”

So what could I find out about the performance she saw?

It took me less than an hour to get some tidbits about it!


The Poster for the Play

I first searched the Swedish Royal Opera’s archives. They have all performances listed back to 1773. All I had to do was to search on the date Augusta visited the theatre. There it was: “A tale of the Queen of Navarre – A Comedy in 5 Acts”. I found that the opening night was the 3 March and they gave 7 performances. The poster for the play showed the actors and the prices for the tickets.

Augusta was 23 years old. If I were to pick one actor that she could have written about, who would it be? The roles in this play included:

Males: King of Spain, King of France, Spanish Minister, French Count, and 3 Not-So-Important Guys.

Females: Sister of the King of Spain, Sister of the King of France, and the Fiancé of the King of Spain.

I am sure all the kings and the count would have been fascinating, but the fiancé of the King – Isabelle of Portugal – would probably be the one a 23-year-old would have found most interesting.

So I picked her.

King Charles XV

The role was played by a Mademoiselle Jacobson. She was the only young, unmarried woman in the play. Who was she?

Elise Jacobson has a whole Wikipedia page under the name Elise Hwasser. In short, she was 20 years old when she played the role of the royal fiancé. She was not yet famous but she was part of the circles of the Swedish Crown Prince Charles (later King Charles XV), and rumored to have had a short affair with him.

Daniel Hwasser

Another friend of the Crown Prince was Daniel Hwasser. They had become friends as students in Uppsala. Daniel was a great tenor. Their friendship resulted in Daniel getting a position as director of the Royal Theatre. It is rumored that the Crown Prince advised Elise to marry Daniel. Regardless, Daniel and Elise married in 1858. She became one of the leading female actresses in Stockholm and had a life-long career. She and her husband spent their summers at Ulriksdal where they socialized with the Royal Family.

Elise Hwasser (1831-1894)


Of course, when Augusta saw the play, Elise was not yet famous and maybe she was not interesting enough to write about. On the other hand, Count Figge Schwerin, who accompanied Augusta home from the theater, might have been very interesting. Unfortunately, we still don’t know who he was. One possible candidate is Fredrik Bogislaus (Fritz) von Schwerin, who was born 18 July 1825 in Norrköping and, according to the census records, was residing in Stockholm.