‘Never stop singing’ says opera star Jeni Houser

Sheltering in Stoughton, she and husband/tenor David Blalock remain grateful for Madison Opera.
Jeni Houser
Jeni Houser (Photo by Revolution Studios)

Two things Jeni Houser has learned in her still ascendant opera career: Things can change in an instant, and no matter what, never stop singing.

Last fall, Houser, a soprano who grew up in Stoughton and lives there again now, played the role of Queen of the Night in the Dallas Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

The final curtain had barely fallen in Texas when Houser got a call: The Los Angeles Opera’s production of the same Mozart opera had a mid-run crisis. The soprano playing Queen of the Night was ill. Could Houser come to California?

“One of the things that happens in an opera career is you get called in last minute,” Houser says. “Somebody has to pull out of something.”

Houser performed admirably in Los Angeles — “She is in the early years of an important career,” wrote the prominent national critic William Burnett — and while there, got yet another unexpected call.

The same singer whose illness had prompted Houser’s invitation to Los Angeles was scheduled to perform the role at the celebrated Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She had to bow out there, too. Was Houser available?

“I ended up flying directly from L.A. to New York,” Houser says. “I got off my red-eye flight and went straight to the Met for a costume fitting.”

She made her Met debut on Jan. 2.

This spring, when we all learned again that everything can change, seemingly in an instant, the opera world was not immune.

Houser and her husband, the distinguished tenor David Blalock, were scheduled to sing the leads in the Madison Opera production of “Orpheus in the Underworld.” Health concerns due to COVID-19 caused its cancellation.

The day the production was to open, April 17, Houser and Blalock provided a little musical thank you to ticketholders, many of whom donated what they’d paid to Madison Opera.

It was in keeping with Houser’s belief we should never stop singing.

“I think it’s important for the whole world,” she says. “The more people who sing, the better. It connects people, it provides beauty, it’s a respite from other things that are going on.”

Houser and Blalock — sheltering at home in Stoughton — did a video that was sent to Madison Opera ticketholders and posted on the opera’s website. It included a playful rendering of “Getting to Know You” from the “King and I.”

If it was a thank you to the loyal patrons, it was also a small expression of how grateful the artists are to Madison Opera, which — despite a contract that allowed them not to — paid the “Orpheus” cast and production team in full.

“Our gratitude is pretty profound,” Houser says.

She did something else, too.

Houser had agreed to work this spring in a masterclass setting with Madison Opera’s annual high school student apprentice program. It, too, had to be cancelled. That could have been that. Instead, Houser took the time to craft a long, insightful and open-hearted letter to the students, in which she offered advice in the context of her own life and career.

Houser taught for a year after graduating from Lawrence University, then moved to New York City, a dice roll intended to help settle the question of whether she could be a professional opera singer. It’s highly competitive and the same across the arts: to earn a living at it is to beat the odds.

In New York, Houser worked an office job while studying with the esteemed voice teacher and octogenarian Shirlee Emmons. Through Emmons she met Kate Butler, a student of Emmons and a professor at the University of Nebraska.

“You’ve got a good start on your technical training,” Butler said. “But you don’t have a lot of stage experience.”

Butler suggested Houser enroll in the master’s program in Lincoln. “I teach the same way Shirlee does,” she said. “You can continue your technical work and get valuable performing experience.”

At Nebraska, Houser starred in roles she could only have landed in a college setting. She got her master’s there in 2011.

“It was a great way to jump into the deep end, learning operatic roles,” she says. “When I finished that degree, I walked out ready to do auditions, on the path I wanted to be on.”

In 2013, Houser started an apprenticeship with the Virginia Opera. One of the other apprentices was David Blalock, who she knew as a friend from having worked together at a production in Fort Worth. Together an entire season in Norfolk, they realized they wanted to be more than friends. The couple married in 2017.

They’ve been based in Stoughton for two years, though regular travel is required of professional opera singers. Houser spent five months in Vienna last year. Blalock made his own Metropolitan Opera debut late last year and was in New York when Houser made hers.

“It was a special few weeks,” she says.

Amid the virus upheaval, the road ahead is uncertain, but then it has always been uncertain for artists.

“I try to balance my enthusiasm for the art form with realism about the state of the business,” Houser says.

It’s an important message for young people. But so is this, from her heart: “Never stop singing.”

“I know a lot of people who studied classical singing who do other things to make a living,” Houser says. “Maybe they sing in a church choir or a community choir. They find all sorts of ways to have singing provide extra fulfillment in their lives.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.