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Opera talent that's homegrown

Korliss Uecker, whose bright and subtle soprano is praised regularly by critics, grew up in Hettinger, N.D., helping her veterinarian father in surgery, shooing flies from sick animals and carrying water for them.

Had she taken another path after she graduated from UND, she might have become a nurse rather than a regular performer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

In fact, for a time, Uecker was both a nurse and an opera singer.

Uecker graduated from UND with degrees in music and nursing. After working as a nurse for a year in Minneapolis, she studied at The Juilliard School in New York City, where she also was a school nurse, doling out prescriptions and taking temperatures.

But opera, which so often focuses on stories of fate and destiny, became Uecker's full-time path. Tonight, as she takes the stage with fellow UND alum Tammy Hensrud to sing the Flower Duet from Lakme, her life will have come full circle.

Uecker, along with Hensrud, will be among four featured soloists for the 100th anniversary season premiere of the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra. The show begins at 8 p.m. at UND's Chester Fritz Auditorium.

Before she came to UND, Uecker said, she knew little about opera and had never sung one. As an 18-year-old freshman, she saw an announcement that the UND music department would present "The Marriage of Figaro." She auditioned and won a role that had two solos.

"It was so much fun," she said. "I'd been in musicals in high school. So, I knew I loved the format of theater with music. And this is that format. I just found it to be a better fit for me than musical theater."

But Uecker also loved science, hence, the two degrees from UND. When she worked as a nurse in Minneapolis, she also continued vocal training and started to learn French and other languages.

"I decided at the end of that year that I'd attempt to go to graduate school in music. So, I auditioned for six or seven around the country," she said. "One was Juilliard, and I was accepted there. I got a scholarship, then full scholarship."

By 1991, she'd earned bachelor's and master's degrees.

After 12 years, she left nursing behind. Her opera debut was in a show with Luciano Pavoratti and Kathleen Battle. She's sung with greats, such as Placido Domingo, and has earned excellent reviews, including for singing one of the longest soprano roles in opera repertoire, that of Suzanna in "The Marriage of Figaro." She's sung in world premieres in Europe and elsewhere and in performances that were broadcast around the globe to millions.

But it was UND that gave her a start.

"What was great about UND is that the department allowed opportunities for people because it wasn't overpopulated," she said. "It was an exciting department, but it wasn't so large. I think many people got a lot of nice opportunities to perform and you could create opportunities to perform for yourself. Some students (who study at larger schools), they don't even put one toe on stage. I think I got that nice solid footing. I actually got to be on the stage at the Chester Fritz."

Last year, she returned to North Dakota to adjudicate regional auditions for the Metropolitan Opera.

She's been married for 14 years to Jerry Grossman, the principal cellist in the Metropolitan Opera. They have a daughter, Katya, 9, who is one of the reasons that she has curtailed traveling.

James Hannon, director of the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra points out that Uecker and fellow soloists Hensrud, Grand Forks, and William Saetre, Thief River Falls, all hail from this area and all have landed at the top of their professions.

"We're talking world-class artists here, world-class performers," Hannon said. "And yet they all are from little old Red River Valley. I think it is a testament to the types of things we have going on here with the university and the symphony. With our 100th season now, it's been at the helm, if you will, right at the forefront of this cultural flowering of the Red River Valley. We are able to foster the local talents of our people, and they are able to go out and have major careers all over the world."

Tonight's program will feature some of the same music that the symphony played at its debut performance 100 years ago, such as music from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by Medelssohn, as well as what Hannon calls "the big shebang," "Beethoven's Ninth Symphony."

Beethoven was completely deaf by the time he composed this music, Hannon said. He could hear it only in his head. What he created was an emotional journey, Hannon said, with a first movement reflecting desperation and angst and a second movement of adventure and joy.

"The third movement is the most amazing, emotionally poignant music," Hannon said. "It's like an exploration of the soul. It's seven years in the desert or going to the mountaintop. It is just this exploration of his soul."

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to ptobin@gfherald.com.

Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra premiere

- When and where:

8 p.m., UND's Chester Fritz Auditorium.

- GGFSO director: James Hannon.

- Guest soloists: Tammy Hensrud, William Saetre, Michael Schmidt, Korliss Uecker.

- Choirs: Grand Forks Master Chorale, UND Concert Choir, UND Varsity Bards, directed by Joshua Bronfman; UND Women's Allegro Choir, directed by L. Grace St. Pierre; Northland Chamber Choir, Thief River Falls, directed by Vanessa Martell.

- Tickets: Chester Fritz box office; www.ggfso.org.