Oh Susannah: Hettinger native nurses a love of opera

Korliss Uecker had a choice of nursing two things: her musical talent or people. She chose the music, but nursing people became a means to help achieve that goal. The Hettinger, N.D., native worked her way through New York's famed Juilliard Schoo...

Korliss Uecker had a choice of nursing two things: her musical talent or people.

She chose the music, but nursing people became a means to help achieve that goal.

The Hettinger, N.D., native worked her way through New York's famed Juilliard School as a registered nurse.

She'll appear in the Red River Valley next weekend for the first time since a 1997 flood benefit in Grand Forks. She'll sing the title role in Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah" with the Fargo-Moorhead Opera.

It will be her first appearance with the opera here. She was to appear locally last year in "The Elixir of Love," but illness forced her to cancel that performance.

Now a Nyack, N.Y., resident, she has built a thriving career, singing regularly with the Metropolitan Opera and performing alongside stars like Kathleen Battle and Luciano Pavarotti.

Opera Artistic Director David Hamilton has known Uecker since both were Juilliard students.

"She is a marvelous actress and 'Susannah' is a real tour-de-force for a soprano," Hamilton says.

"She's in literally every scene of the opera and she has to portray just an incredible emotional range. (Uecker) has the acting capabilities."

She also has the voice for the role's considerable musical demands, Hamilton says.

Uecker, who declines to give her age - "it's absolutely not printable," she says with a laugh - calls "Susannah" a "remarkable piece of musical theater. It's not opera like people have heard."

Composed in 1955, "Susannah" is based on a story from the Apocrypha, a set of books in the Roman Catholic Bible that are not in the Protestant Bible. Floyd updated the story of lust, betrayal and justice to modern-day Appalachia.

It isn't the kind of story Uecker heard much while growing up in Hettinger, N.D., 68 miles south of Dickinson in the state's southwest corner.

She doesn't come from a musical family, describing her background as "church choir folk."

She had an early interest in poetry. That, and a love for music, was spurred by her relationship with a sister who was quadriplegic and brain-damaged in childhood by a car accident. The family often amused her with songs and stories and "even now, I can do stories for days and days," Uecker says.

Uecker first found an interest in, and an aptitude for, music because of Bonnie and Norman Smith, music teachers at Hettinger High School.

"They helped me to understand that I was talented, which otherwise I wasn't clear about," she says. "I had an idea that I had a lot of strength in the area of music; I felt very strong. I got it - and it got me."

Norman Smith says Uecker was "a good student, talented and great to be around."

She showed her potential early, Smith says. As a child, she played Amaryllis in a school production of "The Music Man." And as one of Bonnie Smith's vocal students, she was one of the few who did a senior vocal recital.

"We've had several (students) who've been highly successful," he says. "But she's in the top 1 percent."

But she also had a strong interest in science and medicine, also spurred by her sister's condition. After graduating from high school in Hettinger, she headed for the University of North Dakota.

She discovered opera during her freshman year at UND, auditioning for "The Marriage of Figaro." She was attracted to opera because it was like musical theater, but based more on history, elaborate costumes and increased theatricality, she says.

In the meantime, she performed in both jazz and country bands, playing gigs in Fargo, and performed in musical theater.

She eventually earned degrees in both nursing and music. In 1982, she began working as a nurse at the University of Minnesota Hospital.

But she still was conflicted about whether her career would be in medicine or music.

"I did not know what I was doing," she says.

While working at the hospital, she continued to audition for graduate schools of music. She won acceptance in 1983 to Juilliard in New York.

She supported herself by working the 3 to 11 p.m. shift two to three days a week at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. She also worked on Saturdays as a nurse on Juilliard's small medical staff, treating cuts from the scenery shop, respiratory flu and colds.

The Juilliard job "gave me tremendous leverage" at the school, she says. While music students generally hung out only with other music students, and drama students knew only other drama students, she met students and faculty from all departments, she says.

After graduating from Juilliard in 1990, she worked for two summers as an apprentice with the Santa Fe (N.M.) Opera. With professional nursing experience behind her, it was time to determine whether her path would lead to art or science.

"I was going to see if I could make a career" in opera, she says.

In short order, she found out she could.

During her second apprenticeship, in 1991, she got an emergency call from the Met in New York. A performer had taken ill and Met officials got her name as a possible replacement from a New York vocal coach with whom she'd worked.

She flew to New York, sang a couple of songs and was hired on the spot. They handed her 50 pages of music and gave her 48 hours to learn the part.

She did and that was the beginning of her work at the Met, which continues. It was there she sang - ironically enough, in the same "Elixir of Love" she had to cancel out on in Fargo - with Battle and Pavarotti.

She hasn't worked as a nurse in more than a decade, but has checked her license with the state of New York and has found she needs only a couple of classes to update her qualifications. She misses nursing and has considered doing that, she says, but has not yet decided whether she ultimately will.

It is the variety of skills required for opera that continues to draw her to the art form.

"When I'm doing it, I just feel I'm being fully utilized," she says.

And she loves learning the languages, even the eastern European tongues she's had to learn since the traditional opera repertoire has expanded in recent years.

Even though she's a regular with one of the world's leading opera companies, next weekend's performance in Fargo is special, Uecker says.

"I am getting to see family, friends, college friends, people I haven't seen in many years. It's a tremendous feeling to sing for the people that you came from."

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

If you go

- What: "Susannah," performed by the Fargo-Moorhead Opera. In English, with English titles projected above the stage

- When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. April 10

- Where: North Dakota State University Festival Concert Hall

- Tickets: $30 and $40, available from the NDSU Fine Arts box office, (701) 231-9442

- Information: (701) 239-4558