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Student Hannah Rigg Selected to Join U.S. Air Force’s Elite “Singing Sergeants”

Soprano’s tenacity, faculty support and faith lead to coveted spot in 18-member touring ensemble

Hannah Rigg preparing to go onstage as Miss Wordsworth in the opera Albert Herring.

Hannah Rigg as Miss Wordsworth in the opera Albert Herring.

Meadows Performer’s Diploma student Hannah Rigg will start her professional singing career this summer when she joins the U.S. Air Force’s “Singing Sergeants,” an elite ensemble of 18 vocalists who have sung for every U.S. president since 1945. The Singing Sergeants have performed in all 50 states and in 49 countries for royalty, visiting dignitaries and the public.

Rigg, who will serve in the Air Force in a noncombat role, will undergo basic training before joining the group in August 2013.

Going beyond opera
Rigg earned her M.M. in vocal performance in 2012 at SMU Meadows and is midway through earning her Performer’s Diploma credentials. She has sung opera for about eight years and has played leading roles in Meadows productions, such as Miss Wordsworth in Albert Herring and Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro. Although Rigg enjoys opera, she decided in 2012 that she wanted a career that would include chances to sing gospel, jazz, country and ensemble singing. She realized that a military ensemble would provide those chances; in April 2012 she auditioned for the U.S. Navy’s Sea Chanters chorus.

The audition was grueling, and the results disappointing.

“I was there for 12 hours auditioning, from 6:30 in the morning to 6:30 at night, for four rounds,” says Rigg. “I sang an opera piece, a musical theatre piece, a jazz piece, a country song and the national anthem. They had me do sight-reading and more singing: two ensemble pieces plus the Navy song. Then I went through security clearance.

“They called me a week later and had gone from 25 people to four people; I was one of the four! But they decided to not offer me the position. It was heartbreaking.”

Her good friend and fellow student Coretta Smith (M.M. Vocal Performance, ’13) knew how disappointed Rigg was to not win a place in the Navy ensemble, so when she spotted an audition notice on YAP Tracker (Young Artist Performance Tracker) for the Air Force Singing Sergeants, she called Rigg and urged her to audition.

Auditions, with a twist
Rigg jetted off to audition for the Singing Sergeants in Washington the morning after Albert Herring closed. Despite her excitement, obstacles were thrown in her path. “It was crazy,” she recalls. “I took a 6 a.m. flight and was supposed to get to Reagan airport in time to drive 20 minutes to the base for the 1:30 audition, but during layover in St. Louis our flight was delayed and diverted to Dulles – an hour away from the base.

“So I end up flying into the wrong airport, paying 90 bucks for a cab to get from Dulles to the base, and I didn’t care – I just wanted to get there.”

The audition was every bit as rigorous as the Navy audition, but with an added hurdle: Rigg was sick.

“My mouth was so dry my lip was getting stuck to my teeth,” she says.

The good news? Despite being ill, she made it through the first two rounds. The bad news? She had no energy left for the third.

“After the first two rounds, I was in the warmup room and I looked at myself in the mirror. I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t!’ I had no voice left. I was exhausted. I was sick, I’d just sung all week for Albert Herring and my voice was done. I just couldn’t physically do it and I felt like there was no way the day was going to end up with me getting the job.”  

Then, as she often does, she prayed. “I was like, God, was this what was supposed to happen here? To come all this way just to go home? I told Him, if it’s going to happen, You’re going to have to make it work, because I don’t know how this is going to work.”

What happened next was something that surprised her. “I went back into the room and sang ‘Durch Zärtlichkeit’ from Die Entführung aus dem Serail like I had never, ever sung it before. I’d never sung it better! Then the colonel and the other judges asked me who my favorite pop star was; I told them Adele.

“The colonel said, ‘Okay, now sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” like Adele would sing it,’ and I did. Then I sang ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and Sam Cooke’s ‘Change is Gonna Come,’ which brought a smile to the colonel’s face. That smile looked like victory to me!”

At the end of the audition, Rigg was offered the position and was taken to see the colonel. “He said, ‘I needed to see how you would hold up under pressure, that every time I asked you to do something you’d jump and do it without question – that was what I was looking for.’ Then he told me that 100 people had applied for the position and I was the only one to make it to the third round.

“I cried. I couldn’t believe my dream was happening.”

Faculty mentoring
Rigg, whose paternal grandfather was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force during the Vietnam war, says she wouldn’t be where she is today without the mentoring and unfailing encouragement provided by faculty members such as Senior Lecturer in Voice Dale Dietert, who recognized her ability to switch from mezzo-soprano to coloratura soprano; Professor of Voice Virginia Dupuy, who coached her during national singing competitions; and Director of Opera Hank Hammett and Vocal Coach Martha Gerhart – all of whom encouraged her at every point in her singing journey.

“They told me they believed in me,” says Rigg. “Their belief in me is what got me here.”

Rigg advises other students wanting to reach their goals to not let the obstacles stop them, and to believe they are good enough to achieve what they’re going after. “Every competition you do, you have to believe you are good enough to get first prize,” she says. “If you don’t, it’s a waste of your time. Remind yourself that you’ve worked hard and that you want to achieve your goals. That, and be yourself and have fun.”

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