Music alumna Emily Riedel shares her journey from singing to dredging for gold

Growing up as a third generation Alaskan, Emily Riedel (B.M. Music ’10) knew of gold dredging but never imagined that it would one day become her career. However, as fans of “Bering Sea Gold” on the Discovery Channel know, Riedel is now the only female gold dredge captain in the Bering Sea and has become one of the most recognizable faces in the trade. 

As captain of the “Eroica,” Riedel spends nearly half her year dredging for gold in the Bering Sea off the coast of Nome, Alaska, where she currently resides. While this might seem worlds away from her vocal performance studies at UNCSA, Riedel insists that the fundamental skills of discipline and self reflection have been key to getting her to where she is today. 

We sat down with Riedel to learn more about her journey from singing opera to gold dredging, and how she connects her conservatory education to her everyday life.  

Getting the most out of a conservatory education

When Riedel was in high school, her mother relocated from Alaska to North Carolina and introduced her to UNCSA as an option for college. Though Riedel had been singing for many years, she hadn’t studied what she calls “the academic aspects of music,” such as theory, sight reading and piano. She was nervous about attending a conservatory. In preparation, Riedel took part in a summer intensive that filled some of the gaps in her musical education and got her to the point where she felt she could audition successfully for the vocal performance program. 

Though she now fondly remembers her experience at UNCSA, adjusting to life as a new student came with great challenges for Riedel. She had what she refers to as an “unusual and sporadic” early education, and considers UNCSA to be the first time she was in an “orderly academic environment.” Additionally, Riedel recalls feeling intimidated by her new classmates: “the first couple of weeks at school were such a shock because everyone was so good and I was starting to realize how much there was for me to learn.” 

UNCSA has this ability to imbue a sense of both deep love and responsibility for your art form.

Emily Riedel

After struggling during her first year, Riedel did everything that she could to improve both in her arts and academic classes. “UNCSA has this ability to imbue a sense of both deep love and responsibility for your art form,” explains Riedel. “You want to do better, you want to grow and I took this responsibility upon myself to expand as an artist and that meant I had to study harder, try harder and ultimately learn how to be a good student.”

With the support of faculty members in both the School of Music and the Division of Liberal Arts, Riedel improved throughout her time at UNCSA. She specifically remembers the encouragement of voice faculty member Glenn Siebert, saying “he’s this chill, patient and incredibly kind man who ultimately helped guide me through some of the biggest struggles I faced as a student.” 

Looking back at her four years in the School of Music, Riedel believes UNCSA was formative for the rest of her life because she learned discipline, which “you can take anywhere and apply to anything.”

From the Foothills of North Carolina to the Bering Sea

After graduating from UNCSA, Riedel initially planned on pursuing a career in opera. “I had plans of going to graduate school eventually, as well as traveling throughout Germany and Austria to further develop both my language and singing skills,” recalls Riedel. However, during the planning stages, she quickly realized that she would need funds for traveling. A childhood friend from Alaska suggested that she come to Nome for a summer and save up money from gold dredging in the Bering Sea to help her toward her goals. After a few years learning about the gold dredging process as a deckhand, Riedel shifted directions and purchased her own vessel and is now the only female captain of a gold dredge ship in the area. 

Riedel has bittersweet feelings about her primary focus being gold mining instead of singing. “I still sing on the side, and have done some pretty exciting gigs over the years,” she says, ”but sometimes there is a sadness that I did not pursue opera professionally.” However, Riedel finds her work very rewarding and says she is proud of her accomplishments over the past eleven years.

“As the only woman, there is a lot of emphasis placed upon my gender which is great in a lot of ways because I want to encourage women to do whatever job they want,” explains Riedel. “But I think that in some ways it's been hard to achieve in this field because of my gender, so it makes me feel good that I’ve been able to become a successful gold miner and the captain of my own ship.”

Riedel feels that the life of an artist and the life of a gold miner are not as different as most people would believe. “I’ve always related what I do to the life of an artist in a way because gold miners have independence, and I feel like people who pursue the arts ultimately just want to be the masters of their own destiny,” says Riedel. “Even though you have struggles and go through some pretty hard times, at your core you know that you’re free because you’re doing something different and independent.”

“Bering Sea Gold” 

In what Riedel calls a “happy accident,” during her first summer in Nome the Discovery Channel sent a team to research the possibility of developing a reality show that would follow various captains and crew members as they mine for gold in the Alaskan Bering Sea. The team heard about Riedel and her unusual path from formal vocal performance training to gold dredging and became interested in having her be a part of the show. Thirteen seasons later, “Bering Sea Gold,” developed by the creators of “Deadliest Catch,” is a staple on the Discovery Channel and gives viewers a previously unseen look at the world of gold dredging. Though it was not in the way that she originally envisioned, Riedel says that she enjoys that she is “very much a part of the performing arts, just a very different medium.” 

Though she enjoys filming the show, she doesn’t tune in to watch the episodes. And she steers clear of internet gossip. “Anything that anyone says about you on the internet, be it good or bad, is false because they don’t know you,” she says. “If you read what they say and absorb it, you’re absorbing false information about yourself and that can only hurt you.” 

Within the wide variety of reality television shows that exist, Riedel explains that her work on “Bering Sea Gold” is an “honest view of a group of people doing their everyday jobs and being filmed.” Speaking for her and her co-stars on the series, “we’re living our lives, working hard and trying to achieve our goals out here on the Bering Sea.” 

Connecting back to skills she learned at UNCSA, Riedel says that her arts background has encouraged her to look at her role in the series in an objective and strategic way. “I approach being on this show as my job,” she explains. “My job is to be Emily Riedel, a genuine character on a show, who is true to myself.”

by Melissa Upton-Julio

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September 13, 2021