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His heart is in the valley

For 20 years, Minnesota native William Saetre has lived in Europe, making a career singing for major opera houses. But when it comes to requests to perform in the Red River Valley, he can't say no.

William Saetre
William Saetre grew up in Thief River Falls and Warren, Minn. He now lives in Germany and has made a career out of singing for major opera houses.

For 20 years, Minnesota native William Saetre has lived in Europe, making a career singing for major opera houses. But when it comes to requests to perform in the Red River Valley, he can't say no.

Saetre is the opposite of the favorite son who makes good and then never is seen in his hometown again. He regularly makes the 16-hour flight from Hamburg, Germany, to Amsterdam to Minneapolis to Grand Forks, returning to visit family and friends in Warren, Minn. and Thief River Falls, where he grew up.

While he's here, he often joins with theater groups or sings at local events. Two years ago, he directed the Thief River Falls Arts Council summer production of "Anything Goes." In September 2008, he was one of the featured soloists with the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra for the first performance of its 100th anniversary season. Thursday, he'll be the guest performer at a fundraiser for the Warren/Alvarado/Oslo Education Foundation at 7 p.m. at the school in Warren.

"I've turned down things with the Seattle Opera, but I've never turned down anything in the valley," Saetre said during an interview at a Grand Forks coffeeshop.

Saetre was born in Warren to Warren Saetre (now a retired judge) and the late Margaret (Strunk) Saetre, who liked to tell him that he'd been born to perform. He spent his elementary school years in Warren before his family moved to Thief River, where he graduated from Lincoln High School.

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He first sang in public at age 5 with the Our Savior's Lutheran Church choir. And he has a perfect memory of the first musical he ever saw, Warren High School's "My Fair Lady," directed by Ken Sherwood.

"I was spellbound," he said. "That did it." At 5, Saetre was officially hooked on music and acting.

He wasn't the first notable musician in his family. Saetre said he is the fifth generation in his mother's family (going back to Norway) to have produced an opera tenor. His great-aunt, Gladys Grindeland, was the first woman to conduct in Carnegie Hall. His grandmother, Synneva Grindeland Knapp, was an opera and musical theater buff, and he spent many hours listening to music with her.

The Saetre family (William has five siblings) were neighbors in Warren with the family of Sherwood, a longtime music teacher, now retired from the Grand Forks Public Schools. William grew up playing with the Sherwood children, Brad and Connie, now music teachers in Grand Forks, and he spent hours putting on shows with them in their basements, he said.

At school in Thief River Falls, Saetre had roles in all the musicals and plays, from "Carnival" to "Our Town," and also took piano lessons from age 6.

"I had perfect pitch, so I could sight-read anything," he said. That's a wonderful talent to have, but not one that encouraged him to practice, he said. His teachers and years of experience taught him responsibility and professionalism, he said. Gone are the times when he'd cram for a role by learning it on the plane on the way to his performance, he said.

Saetre said the singers who are his heroes include the Swedish tenor Jussi Bj'rling; Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad; Peter Kazaras, an acclaimed operatic tenor now the artistic adviser for Seattle Opera; and American mezzo-soprano Mary Ann McCormick. Also on the short list: the late, great Luciano Pavarotti.

"If I didn't mention him, I'd be an idiot," he said. "Unlike Placido Domingo -- although Domingo I admire for many, many, many things -- but when you listen to Pavarotti, you hear this amazing joy, this joie de vivre. That's why all over the world people loved him."

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Saetre is a warm and congenial man, animated and ebullient when he talks about music, Minnesota and his family and friends. "I'm a tenor. I could talk all day," he said when asked how much time he had for an interview.

As a youngster, Saetre's parents took him to Minneapolis every year when the Metropolitan Opera was in town to see the shows. After high school, Saetre earned bachelor's degrees in theater and music at St. Olaf College (where he sang in the choir) and then his master's at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In 1990, he moved to Europe where he's lived since, mostly in Germany. There, he is employed by the government, as are many singers. When he has breaks in his official schedule, he sometimes performs with other companies.

His career has taken him to performances from New York City to Los Angeles, and from Dallas to Seattle. In Europe, he's sung in Paris, Vienna, Copenhagen, Brussels and Rome; in Graz, Austria, and in Germany at the opera houses in Dusseldorf, Essen and Gelsenkirchen. He's sung roles in many operas: "Die Fledermaus," "Falstaff," "Billy Budd," "Salome" and dozens more.

Most recently, he played the lead in the Vienna Opera House production of Jean-Philippe Rameau's comic opera "Platée," about an ugly little frog that falls in love with Jupiter, the king of the gods. The piece was first performed in 1745, commissioned by the French king, Louis XV, when his son who was engaged to Maria Theresa of Spain. (The Spanish princess was not known for her good looks, so this opera may have been a dig to her, although she and the dauphin actually had a happy but brief marriage -- she died when she was 20.) "Platée" has been a hit, and Saetre will return to it after he goes back to Europe in May.

To Saetre, it feels like his career has never been better. He remembers one of his teachers who told him in graduate school: "You will reach the peak of your power when you start to sing Wagner." Next year, for the first time, he's scheduled to sing from Wagner's "Ring" cycle.

"I'm on stage, and I'm aware of what I can do and not what I can't do," he said. "That's thrilling, to be on stage and to know you have all these different options available to you."

This trip home is Saetre's second this year. His mother had been ill for some time, and he was at his parents' home March 20 when she died. The night he arrived, two days before she passed, he sat at the piano and played and sang her favorite songs, then sang at her funeral. He returned to Europe to work and then flew back to Grand Forks on April 8.

Saetre's friend (and his fourth-grade teacher) Carol Anderson asked him at least two years ago if he'd sing for a WAO Education Foundation fundraiser. After all these years, Saetre said, his connections to the Warren and Thief River Falls communities are as strong as ever. His best friends include Jean Larson and Jane Anderson, who are among the leaders of the Thief River Falls Arts Council, and David Beito, a banker who he's known since seventh grade and who was his roommate at St. Olaf. Saetre (who also teaches singing at the Hamburg Conservatory) even has a student here: Catharine Rutz, 11, of Grand Forks.

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Saetre knows not everyone has that kind of feeling for his hometown after so many years of living elsewhere. Even though he hates flying, he said, he's always eager to return to the flatlands of the Red River Valley. But it's more than the topography that brings him back.

"That plane can't fly fast enough," he said. "I love looking down on that flat. I love it here. This is the last place in America where people are real anymore."

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

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