Nebraska alumna and soprano Jeni Houser has slipped into Mozart’s Queen of the Night many times, but nothing could have prepared her for tackling the role on the most famous opera stage in the United States.
Houser made her Metropolitan Opera House debut Jan. 2, performing the role in a production of “The Magic Flute.”
“The performance itself — it was unlike anything else I had done, because I did not get to rehearse on the stage at all beforehand,” Houser said.
“When I was actually out there on the stage, what I discovered was (that) 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?’”
Houser stepped in for the role when a colleague had to drop out of the performance for health issues.
William Shomos, 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 who are transforming students’ lives in the elementary and high schools of Nebraska and throughout the country,” Shomos said. “But now and then, one of our graduates accomplishes something that is both important and very high-profile. Singing a principal role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City is about as high-profile as anything gets in this business.”
While at Nebraska, Houser was a voice student of Kate Butler and had leading roles in opera productions here, including “Romeo and Juliet” and “Rigoletto.”
“We are all so proud of the work Jeni has achieved since graduating and offer our heartiest congratulations on this milestone,” Shomos said.
Houser said the role of The Queen of the Night is a challenging one. In “The Magic Flute,” the Queen of the Night persuades Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina from captivity under the high priest Sarastro, but Tamino learns more about Sarastro and wants to join the community. Tamino and Pamina are challenged through initiations but are triumphant, and the Queen is vanquished.
“(The Queen) sings one of the most famous pieces in all of classical music and certainly in opera,” Houser said. “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.”
Currently based in Madison, Wisconsin, Houser has performed professionally around the United States since she received her master’s degree from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Prior to coming to Nebraska, Houser received her bachelor’s degree from Lawrence University, and then lived and taught in New York City.
“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 figure out what kind of repertoire you want to sing,’” Houser said.
Her time at Nebraska helped launch her professional opera career.
“I really hadn’t done any opera before,” Houser said. “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.”
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 it to be really inspiring, it would be hard to stay in this field. The lifestyle can be a challenge. The travel can be tough. 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 that 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 question-and-answer session with some of the singers at UNL, so I’m very excited about that,” Houser said.