Henriette Widerberg was born into a theatrical family in Stockholm as the child of Andreas Widerberg and Anna Catharina Widerbäck, stars in the troupe Gemenasiska Sällskapet that performed in the first real theater of Gothenburg, Comediehuset, in the 1780s. Her parents met on the stage and married the same night in 1787 on which they played onstage lovers. That year her father became the director of the same theater, only to leave it to become one of the most famous actors on the stage of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm; admired much by women, as it was said, because of his good looks, and also complimented by male critics for his "male figure". Henriette's siblings also became performers, but were never so successful as she.
A beautiful child, Henriette was early on sent by her mother to the stage in order to contribute to the household. In her memoirs, she describes how she played with dolls while her mother received presents from Henriette's adult male admirers. She was enrolled in Dramatens elevskola in 1807, at which she was under the care of the principal Sofia Lovisa Gråå, who educated her students according to the French traditions of Anne Marie Milan Desguillons and allowed her female pupils, according to the papers, a shocking freedom. From 1810 she was a part of the De Broen's travelling troupe, which performed in the theatre Djurgårdsteatern in Stockholm in the summer. During the 1810s she was one of the most popular singers in Gothenburg. She returned to Stockholm in 1817, when she debuted on the stage of the Royal Swedish Opera as Laura in the opera Léon ou Le Château de Monténéro by Nicolas Dalayrac, a performance which was "touching to a degree which made the audience melt to tears".
Though she never learned to read notes, she had a great natural talent and could quickly learn her part in a song simply by having heard it once. Her voice was described as that of a nightingale, and when Jeanette Wässelius, successor of Caroline Halle-Müller, retired in 1820, Henriette replaced her as Sweden's first prima donna, in competition with Elisabeth Frösslind and Anna Sofia Sevelin. Her salary reflected her position. She was paid 1.600; as comparison, the male actor with the highest salary was paid 1.800, and the lowest salary for an actress was 200.
In her memoirs, Widerberg talks about the circumstances regarding the 1820 dismissal of Jeanette Wässelius that led to her own rise to the top. At the time of her dismissal, the celebrated Wässelia (as she was called) was only 36 and at the top of her ability; she was also widely recommended for her professional moral. There was no reason for her dismissal other than that she was involved in a conflict with the influential Edvard du Puy, actor, singer and master of the opera's chapel, a man Henriette describes as "as mean as he was beautiful". Despite that, Henriette Widerberg greatly benefited from the dismissal of Wässelia, as it made her the prima donna of the opera; she points out in her memoirs her opinion that Jeanette Wässelius had been treated unjustly, and that du Puy had abused his power.
Widerberg started with parts in light operettas, until her performance in La vestale by Spontini (in 1821) proved her capable of performing more demanding parts. She played Emilie in Målaren och modellerna (The painter and the models) by Méhul, Clara in Adolphe et Clara, ou Les deux prisonniers by Dalayrac, Cora in Cora och Alonzo by Johann Gottlieb Naumann, Pamina in The Magic Flute, Zerline in Fra Diavolo, Anna in Don Juan, the title part in La dame blanche by Boieldieu and Anna in Friskyttarna (The poachers) by Weber; Julia in Vestalerna (The Vestals), the title role in Armida by Rossini, and Amazily in Fernand Cortez by Spontini.
In her performance as Zerlina in Fra Diavolo, 17 May 1833, she became the first singer to do a scene of undressing on the stage of the opera. This shocked the press, which wrote "Now, a woman can do on stage what she could not do even in the most intimate circle of a decent company, and undress herself until her petticoat."
She was seen as a great natural talent with a fantastic mezzo-soprano, but she had an easygoing character which made her indolent and uninterested in developing herself. As her natural ability made many things simple for her, she never bothered to read notes—instead, she asked someone from the orchestra to sing and play her the part, and after hearing it, regardless of what instrument was used, she was able to sing it without much effort. The quality of her performance was said to have been dependent upon whether she liked a part or not, and she was described as bad and screamy in parts she did not care for, mediocre in parts she was indifferent to, and fabulous in parts she liked. "If she pleased to adjust herself to the situation - and she could, when she wanted to - then this voice was irresistibly enchanting, intoxicating. The poetry of voice was something no singer knew more than she". She was called the "Malibran of Sweden", as Orvar Odd wrote: "A Malibran without learning but what voice, oh, thou nightingales!"
As a person, Widerberg was described as witty, happy and kind; she had the ability to laugh at herself, and was neither greedy nor someone to plot against her colleagues. She was very much talked about because of her private life and her many love affairs. She had no sense of economy and lived without thinking about tomorrow; she lived "with no restraint" and "had a tendency to change the object of tender affection". In her memoirs she describes her many adventures, in which admirers invited her to manors in the country, dressed themselves as women in order to be allowed into her rooms, and tried to throw her into the river when she turned them down.
There are numerous anecdotes of Henriette's career, and many stories from her own memoirs as well. One known incident, causing great amusement among the public, took place when she played Susanna in Figaro in 1821. The male singer who played Figaro, Edvard du Puy (the very same person who was responsible for the dismissal of Wässelia described above), invited her to his room to rehearse the play, but when she arrived he tried to seduce her. She declined the offer and left, which made him much disappointed. The next day she did not know her part, and du Puy then reported her to the director, who placed her on house arrest in her rooms for delaying the rehearsals. She was deeply angered by this treatment, and when the caretaker wanted to put extra locks on her door, she threatened to jump out of the window. She was comforted by her colleagues, who visited her and cheered her up with a little party meant to see if it was legal to place women on arrest—unfortunately, it was; this was one of the disciplinary rules that the actors later demanded to be removed in the great strike led by Ulrik Torsslow and Sara Fredrica Strömstedt-Torsslow in 1827.
During the performance, Henriette received such enthusiasm from the public that her anger vanished, but when they reached the part of the play at which Susanna was to slap Figaro seven times, she did so with such enthusiasm that the audience started laughing.
During a conflict with one of the theater's directors, who was said to have been less than careful about his hygiene, the director questioned Henriette about her bills regarding such things and she replied: "It is easy to say, Mr Count, for someone with no idea how much it costs to keep oneself clean and fresh!" She also writes that when she complained about men and boys trying to take a look at her when she had to change during performances, this director chased them all away, but guarded her from them by observing her himself—though, she adds, he was really quite harmless. She remained neutral during the great theater strikes of 1827 and 1834.
In 1837, she was given the title of court singer. The same year, however, she was fired from the Swedish Royal Opera because of her "irregularity" and the lack of effort she had shown over the last years. She continued as a guest actor for the next few years, but soon withdrew to private life, which was dominated by economic troubles. She was a guest artist at the Opera in the 1838–39 season. Between 1842–44, she was employed at the theatre Mindre teatern, where according to Aftonbladet she performed with the same talent that had been admired before; however at the time she was heavily indebted to a nobleman and indebted her boss Lindeberg, who had placed himself as her security. The playwright August Blanche visited her in her poverty, when she and her brother Fredrik Julius Widerberg, the alcoholic former leader of a theatre troupe, were helped only by Emilie Högquist. She opened a restaurant in 1848, and in 1850–51, she published her memoirs, En skådespelerskas minnen (The memories of an actress). She was eventually given a larger pension by the Opera. She died in Stockholm.
Henriette Widerberg has often been compared with Emilie Högquist, as their personalities and life stories were very much alike, and Emilie in many ways filled the place of Henriette when she retired.
Widerberg never married, but she had several children. She describes in her memoirs how her children watched her in the death scene in Romeo and Juliet and started to cry "Mother is dead, mother is dead!" Her daughters Georgina and Julia were also to be famed on the stage, Georgina as an actor and Julia as a singer, and her son was to become a well-known musician. Georgina Wilson, née Widerberg (1821–1858), daughter of the secretary of the British Embassy, Charles Manners St George, was active as an actor from 1835 within travelling companies, in Djurgårdsteatern and Mindre teatern (1843–44), where she was appreciated within "finer comedy". Julia Liedberg, née Widerberg (1824–1847) debuted as a singer at the Opera in 1841 and was described as musical, sensitive and lovable. Both daughters "left after themselves a beautiful non-clouded memory". The son of Henriette was known and liked as a street musician and guitarist, and sang with "a high and beautiful tenor...with such an expression", and he was placed as a student in the Opera in 1858. However, he soon left the Opera as he preferred to sing and play on the street as a free "Boheme". He was known as "The Beautiful Rose".