Nebraska Alumna Houser makes Met Opera debut in ‘The Magic Flute’
calendar icon16 Jan 2020
Lincoln, Neb.--Soprano Jeni Houser (M.M. 2011) made her Metropolitan Opera debut on Jan. 2, performing as The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
“It was kind of surreal,” Houser said of her experience performing on the famed Metropolitan Opera stage in New York City.
“It was interesting because the rehearsal process and going to work there every day really felt the same as it does everywhere else,” she said. “I knew a lot of the folks I was working with. Everyone was good at their jobs and very supportive and helpful. It really felt like a pretty good work environment every day. But when it came to the performance itself, it was unlike anything else I had done because I did not get to rehearse on the stage at all beforehand.”
Every season there are people who cover the performances and just sing in one, Houser said, so they typically do not get rehearsals on stage before that. Houser stepped into the role when a colleague had to drop out of the role in this performance for health issues.
“I just knew that day was going to feel really unique, and I was just going to have to be really focused to make sure I didn’t fall down and because I wasn’t going to know how well I could hear the orchestra or what it was going to feel like to sing on that stage,” she said. “I was preparing myself for whatever it was. And when I was actually out there on the stage, what I discovered was it is a really wonderful stage to sing on. The sound that you get actually singing up there is remarkable. So I made my first sounds, and I thought, ‘OK, this is kind of fun.’ But when I came offstage after each aria, I basically didn’t know what had happened. I think it was a classic sort of performer thing where you’re just kind of in the zone. And then when it’s over, you have to ask other people—Did I do that?”
William Shomos, the Richard H. Larson Distinguished Professor of Music and Director of Opera, said Houser’s achievement is an important milestone in her career.
“So many of our music graduates are doing great work. It’s not always high profile, but so much of it is very important. I think of all the wonderful music teachers from UNL who are transforming students’ lives in the elementary and high schools of Nebraska and throughout the country. But now and then, one of our graduates accomplishes something that is both important AND very high profile,” Shomos said. “Singing a principal role (‘The Queen of the Night,’ no less!) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City is about as high profile as anything gets in this business. While at UNL, Jeni was a voice student of Kate Butler, and had leading roles in UNL Opera productions of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Rigoletto.’ We are all so proud of the work Jeni Houser has achieved since graduating from UNL and offer our heartiest congratulations on this milestone.”
Houser had sung the role of The Queen of the Night at a number of other companies, most recently Los Angeles Opera and Dallas Opera, so she was comfortable with the role.
“I knew that the notes would come out of my body, whether or not I was fully aware of what was happening,” she said. “But it was a new translation for me. It was in English, and I had been doing it in German just before that. I wanted to make sure I didn’t mess up any words, and I don’t think I did. Overall, I would say it was sort of surreal, and at the same time, kind of the same thing that I’ve been doing as my job for a while with really supportive and wonderful colleagues. And then when I went out to bow, I could really see the space and the house lights were up higher at that point. And then I thought, wow, this is pretty special.”
Houser said the role of The Queen of the Night is a challenging one.
“She’s really something,” she said. “The first thing to say about her is that she sings one of the most famous pieces of music in all of classical music and certainly in opera. There’s a certain amount of pressure to bring fire and rage to that rage aria ‘Der Hölle Rache’ to make sure that the intonation is on and that all of the fireworks are really impactful.”
Houser said what’s interesting about The Queen of the Night is that she has two big arias in the opera.
“There’s nothing quite like this role in that you sing these two arias that are very different, and that’s basically the whole role,” she said. “You get a chance to show some pathos and musical sensitivity in the first aria, and then the second aria is a completely different animal with all of that rage stuff. I find her to be a real challenge, but the way Mozart wrote this character is, I think, absolute genius, so every time I get a chance to sing it, I find it to be difficult in new ways. And I also think how did Mozart ever come up with this? It’s just so good.”
Currently based in Madison, Wisconsin, Houser has performed professionally since she received her master’s degree from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Her first professional job after graduating was with Opera for the Young, which tours and does educational outreach primarily for elementary schools.
“I learned a lot about how to use your voice every single day and got some good performing under my belt that way,” she said.
She has since performed with Dallas Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Kentucky Opera, Madison Opera, Austin Opera, Cincinnati Opera and Minnesota Opera, among others. She has also performed two summers with the Glimmerglass Festival and joined Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Lyric Unlimited for “The Magic Victrola,” where she sang Olympia’s aria from “Les contes d’Hoffmann.”
“Every year, I just sort of had some new opportunities that kept coming up,” she said. “Gradually, each gig that you do gives you a little more credibility in the business and so one thing sort of led to another. I’ve done a ton of auditions, but I’ve also gotten a lot of work from other work that I’ve done, and some colleagues that I’ve met on jobs. Like every industry, that’s a huge part of it.”
Houser said her family was always making music, so she has always sung. But she didn’t study classical vocal technique until she got to Lawrence University, where she got her undergraduate degree.
“When I started at Lawrence University, I started taking voice lessons. I still had no plans to be a performer. I was getting a music education degree, along with an English degree, and I absolutely planned to teach. But I love singing. I always loved singing, so I just worked hard at it because I thought that was an interesting and fun challenge. I had the opportunity to do various types of performances. At some point in there, I kind of caught the bug, and I thought, I love teaching, but I wonder if I could do this for a living. I just wonder if that’s possible.”
After teaching for a year and living in New York City for two years to take voice lessons and audition, she came to Nebraska to study with Professor Emeritus Kate Butler.
“I met Professor Butler, and she said if you want to get an advanced degree, I think that my studio might be a good fit for you. I think that UNL might be a good fit for you. You could get some stage experience, which you don’t really have, and we can work on connections in the business and figuring out what kind of repertoire you want to sing,” Houser said.
Her time at Nebraska was important to her professional career.
“Those two years were hugely instrumental,” Houser said. “I really hadn’t done any opera before. I got to do some huge roles, which were a really big challenge for me. And Bill Shomos led me through that. And Professor Butler taught me how to prepare a role and guided me through the preparation and all the vocal work. And then Bill was really there teaching me how to move on stage and how to interact with people and just so supportive of everything I was doing and learning. And telling me all along, this is where you’re at. This is what you should work on next, and we think you can go do this. So it was experience. It was a time of vocal growth as well. And then it was the confidence to go out into the world after that and audition for things and think that maybe I had a shot to get some gigs.”
Her advice to young singers is to be motivated and to be inspired.
“The opera lifestyle can be a real challenge,” Houser said. “I think what has gotten me through some of the tough times is being really motivated by what I’m doing. I think that if you don’t find that to be really inspiring, it would be hard to stay in this field. The lifestyle can be a challenge. The travel can be tough. Things move at a pretty quick pace, and you have to be able to take care of your own part of the show and take care of your own voice. So I think digging into whatever it is for a young singer that inspires them is the key and finding ways to stay motivated and always feel like you’re learning and growing. From there, anything is possible.”
Houser will be returning to Lincoln in March to present a workshop with Jay Colwell of Singing Body Clinic, which focuses on physical awareness and body work for singers.
“We’re doing a masterclass on that, and I’m going to sing a little bit as part of that and do a Q&A with some of the singers at UNL, so I’m very excited about that,” Houser said.
She will follow that up with performances of Eurydice in “Orpheus in the Underworld” at Madison Opera in April and The Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute” with the New Orleans Opera in May.
One of Houser’s lasting memories of her time at Nebraska was working on the opera “Rigoletto” in her first year here with guest artist Todd Thomas. Houser watched Shomos and Thomas collaborate on Thomas’ staging for the opera when he arrived, which inspired Houser.
“I watched [Thomas] walk all around that stage and know every word of every moment of the opera and know exactly what he wanted to express. And he had this remarkable conversation with Bill about what Bill was staging, and Todd adding in little things here or there. There was this real exchange of ideas and creativity, and I got to be a part of it,” she said. “I got to interact with him on stage, and he passed on a bunch of little tips and tidbits to me throughout that process. And that was my first glimpse of what it looks like to be a professional opera singer. That is the level where you just are confident, you know what you’re doing. It’s a creative process, and it seemed sort of magical to me. That was one of the things that spurred me into wanting to be in this world.”