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Miss America Betty Cantrell boosts Mercer University, Wesleyan College

Miss America Betty Cantrell is poised to put another jewel in the crown of Macon’s rich music history.

Her passionate performance of Madame Butterfly’s “Tu Tu Piccolo Iddio” is putting Wesleyan College and Mercer University in the national spotlight as well.

“That’s one of the hardest arias and one of the hardest roles,” said Martha Malone, Cantrell’s voice teacher at the Townsend School of Music at Mercer. “When our students have that kind of exposure, it’s great for us. They make us look good.”

Sunday night, music students packed the hallway of the McCorkle Music Building to watch the Miss America Pageant on a television on the wall.

Mercer’s director of choral studies, Stanley Roberts, said more than two dozen people were focused on the live broadcast.

“It was great to watch these kids and the excitement build and build,” he said. “When it was over. they were hollering, screaming and laughing.”

Although Cantrell suspended her studies in the spring to concentrate on preparing for the Miss Georgia contest, she has many friends on campus.

“Everyone was very, very excited to find out she won and will be representing Mercer and the Townsend School of Music wherever she goes,” C. David Keith, dean of the music school, said in a news release.

Malone, who helped Cantrell with the aria, is expecting a greater interest in Mercer.

“Just like when Mercer beat Duke on the basketball court. You wouldn’t believe the number of hits on our website,” Malone said.

After Cantrell won the talent preliminary competition Thursday night, she thanked Malone and Wesleyan College’s Nadine Cheek, chair of the music department, who began Cantrell’s vocal training when she was 14 years old.

“God gave her a great gift...” said Cheek, who worked with the teen to open up her “head voice” to hit higher notes.

After the eighth-grader strengthened her soprano range, her mother, Tassie Cantrell, would often be moved to tears during lessons.

“She was always moved by Betty and so was I,” Cheek said. “And I think everybody else was (Sunday) night.”

Georgia’s only other Miss America, Neva Jane Langley Fickling, studied piano at Wesleyan’s Conservancy of Music in the early 1950s.

“I think it’s kind of amazing that both Neva and Betty have this connection with Wesleyan and Macon,” Cheek said. “I feel blessed and grateful that I have known and made music with two Miss Americas.”

The grand performance hall at Mercer is named for Fickling, whose family has made significant contributions to the university.

It was on the Fickling stage where Cantrell often stole the spotlight, Roberts said.

“Even when she’s doing minor opera roles here, you can’t help but watch her,” he said. “Betty has that natural stage instinct you don’t teach.”

Cantrell is even better at Broadway tunes, Roberts said, but thinks she made the right selection to set her apart from other singers.

Nancy Rehberg, a Mercer vocal professor who worked with Cantrell as a Wesleyan freshman, said the teen adapted her voice for multiple genres.

“She is multitalented in that she can sing classicals, opera and musical theater equally well,” Rehberg said. “She was willing to train classically, which gave her so much more power with her instrument.”

Her talent is Broadway-worthy now, Roberts said, but she has never let it go to her head. She happily accepted vocal assignments to parts where she was needed, not necessarily what she wanted to sing.

“That’s who she was,” Roberts said. “She’s not a prima donna. ... There’s just a sense of esprit de corps, a wonderful congeniality about her the whole time.”

Cantrell’s aspirations may come quicker than her diploma.

“She’s unbelievable,” Malone said. “We miss her, but the world is her oyster. She’s so smart. She’s so quick.”

Cantrell took just a few lessons in the spring with Malone to get her ready for Miss Georgia for the second straight year.

Cantrell, as Miss Presidential Pathways, was named Miss Georgia’s second runner-up in 2014.

“I could just tell she was more focused and ready,” Malone said.

Cantrell had hoped to stop by to visit with members of Mercer’s chorus before heading to Atlantic City. She sent her mother instead to deliver her greetings.

“We’re happy for her,” Roberts said. “And we look forward to the day we celebrate with her in the hallway.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303 and follow her on Twitter @liz_lines.

Clarification: This story has been changed to clarify a comment by Nadine Cheek, chairwoman of Wesleyan College’s music department, who provided voice lessons to Betty Cantrell in her early years. The comment now reads: “God gave her a great gift...” said Cheek, who worked with the teen to open up her “head voice” to hit higher notes.

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