Opera is probably not the first thing to come to mind when you think of Aretha Franklin, but the late soul legend could do absolutely anything, as evidenced by her amazing take on the opera piece “Nessun dorma”. In the video below, Franklin lends her pipes to the piece at the 1998 Grammy Awards as a last minute replacement for her good friend Luciano Pavarotti, who had fallen ill.
Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, one of the most celebrated tenors of all time, helped bring Giacomo Puccini’s aria “Nessun dorma” to the mainstream when he performed it at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, which was hosted by Italy. It soon became his signature piece and he fittingly sang it at his final performance at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
Pavarotti was scheduled to perform the piece at the 1998 Grammy Awards in New York City, but just before the ceremony he informed the organizers that he would be unable to perform. They asked the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin to save the day, and the rest is history. Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich had heard Franklin perform the piece two nights prior at a MusiCares dinner, so didn’t have any qualms about asking her to step in at the last minute.
It’s really something to hear a contemporary singer like Franklin, untrained in opera, so naturally performing such a demanding operatic piece. “Nessun dorma” features a sky high top B at the end, which you can hear Franklin hit. Aside from the last minute nature of the performance, it’s especially impressive as the orchestra had prepared to perform the piece in a key suitable for a male tenor vocalist, yet Franklin rose to the challenge. Listen to Pavarotti sing the piece in the video below.
Memphis, Tennessee native Franklin, who passed away in 2018 at age 76, adds a touch of her soul and R&B feel to “Nessun dorma” in the first video, making it quite a unique performance. Her ability to hit the low tenor notes earlier in the piece is also quite remarkable.
Rock icon Sting, of The Police fame, introduced Franklin at the Grammys. After the performance, the pair together announced Pavarotti as the winner of the Grammy Living Legend Award. This was quite fitting as the Queen of Soul had herself received that honor seven years prior.
“Luciano, I know you’re at home cheering on Aretha,” Sting said, “cheering quietly but cheering nonetheless. He then presented the Living Legend award to Pavarotti in absentia, stating that “Living is the perfect word for you Luciano, for not only do you possess one of the greatest voices ever, but your spirit and zest for life is singular.”
Franklin’s performance received a standing ovation and was viewed by one billion people worldwide. She would go on to record “Nessun dorma” in the studio as well as add it to her life repertoire. The final time she performed the aria live was for Pope Francis in 2015 at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. If you would like to see more from Aretha Franklin, you can subscribe to their YouTube channel or follow them on Facebook.