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Have Mercy! Young soprano Mercy Calhoun has ‘a real special gift’

By Judy E. Hamilton, Staff writer
CHIP ELLIS | Sunday Gazette-Mail Mercy Calhoun, an Appalachian Children’s Chorus member, has been
CHIP ELLIS | Sunday Gazette-Mail Mercy Calhoun, a high school senior in the Appalachian Children’s Chorus, leads the chorus in a rehearsal for their spring concert April 27 at 3 p.m. at Charleston Baptist Temple.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Mercy Calhoun may look like an average a 17-year-old, but when she opens her mouth to sing, something extraordinary happens.

Her soprano voice is so special she has landed an acceptance to the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, a prestigious and selective college consistently listed as one of the top music schools in the country.

She has been involved in the Appalachian Children’s Chorus for eight years with founding director Selina Midkiff and taking private voice lessons with classical performing artist and vocal instructor Mariel van Dalsum for four of those years.

Mercy will be a featured soloist in the chorus’s spring concert at 3 p.m. April 27 at Charleston Baptist Temple, 209 Morris St. Admission to the two-hour concert is $15.

“I have been in the public schools for 40 years and teaching for 23 years for ACC. This is just a real special gift with Mercy. She’s smart. She’s pretty. She’s a hard worker. I would not normally promote a career in the opera; it’s a hard life. But Mercy has what it takes, and apparently Peabody thinks so too,” Midkiff said.

She pointed out that Mercy’s talent is further illustrated by the fact that she performed a solo with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra in 2012, at the age of 15.

“I told her, ‘Aim high,’ and to apply to some schools that were really challenging. She’s the one who decided to apply to Peabody. The fact that she got into Peabody is incredible. It’s very selective,” said van Dalsum, who coaches the most-advanced ACC choir, of which Mercy is a member, adding that she is not surprised Mercy earned a spot in the exclusive music school.

The Peabody Conservatory has an enrollment of around 650 students from around the globe. It requires an application, three recommendations, a screening process, a recorded audition and a live audition before a decision is made on acceptance.

“She’s an extremely hard worker and impressive young lady. It is so hard to get in to Peabody, especially as a soprano, because there are so many of them,” van Dalsum said. “The fact that she got in is really amazing. We are really proud of her. Lots of people audition for Peabody, but over 50 percent are eliminated immediately, and only about 30 are accepted.”

Van Dalsum speaks several languages and has taught her student to sing and to understand what she is singing — in seven languages.

Mercy credits both Midkiff and van Dalsum with her success.

“ACC is really the biggest thing that has prepared me for Peabody. My voice teacher, Mariel, is really like a second mom to me. She always there to give me advice.

“I’m still in the process of making a decision on which school to attend. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a decision by May 1,” she said.

She has been accepted to several other colleges with schools of music and is waiting for scholarship awards to be finalized before making a final selection.

“I would like to sing professionally. I like to travel. I would like to go to Europe,” she said of her goals.

Her mother, Kathy Calhoun, elaborated on her daughter’s goals. “She has an operatic voice, so she would love to sing opera. Going to Peabody will open a lot of doors for her. Whatever she decides, it will always involve music and bringing the joy and beauty of music to others. She likes to express that, so that others feel it. It’s her dream to be able to sing opera at the Met,” Kathy Calhoun said.

The Metropolitan Opera is based in New York City and is the largest classical music organization in North America, presenting about 27 different operas each year.

“She’s been singing her whole life. When she was tiny — before she could talk — in church, she would do baby jabber in pitch to the hymns,” Kathy Calhoun said.

Mercy is a senior at Elk Valley Christian School in Elkview. She credits her early life in church as helping to form her love of music. Her mother adds that Mercy is special in ways beyond her voice.

“She’s our youngest of five children and our only biological child. Faith is our child closest to Mercy. She’s 24 and severely disabled. Mercy is very compassionate and helps with her sister’s daily care. Faith loves music and loves to hear Mercy sing,” she said. Mercy’s three brothers were born with severe medical conditions.

The family moved to West Virginia about eight years ago after living in multiple cities across the country due to Mercy’s father’s military career in the Air Force. Dr. Byron Calhoun is an obstetrician-gynecologist in Charleston.

“It took us a few years to find West Virginia. We just love it here,” Kathy Calhoun said.

For more information about Appalachian Children’s Chorus, call 304-343-1111 or visit

Reach Judy E. Hamilton at or 304-348-1230.


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