Aretha Franklin Takes Over for an Ailing Luciano Pavarotti & Sings Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” at the Grammys (1998)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: When the star is unable to per­form, a tal­ent­ed under­dog is plucked from the cho­rus and thrown into the spot­light with just min­utes to pre­pare.

It’s a crowd pleas­ing plot, one that occa­sion­al­ly plays out in real life, as it did at the 1998 Gram­my Awards, above.

The twist was that the under­dog role went to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, pinch-hit­ting for her friend, oper­at­ic super­star, Luciano Pavarot­ti, benched by a sore throat at the zero hour.

Giv­en the nature of the event, the Radio City Music Hall audi­ence prob­a­bly wouldn’t have mind­ed had the planned pro­gram­ming been scrapped in favor of “Respect,” “Nat­ur­al Woman,” or any num­ber of tunes Franklin can crush with­out bat­ting an eye­lash.

Instead, she stuck with “Nes­sun Dor­ma,” the famous final act open­er from Gia­co­mo Puccini’s Tur­nadot. Nev­er mind that it was Pavarotti’s sig­na­ture aria, that the man had pop­u­lar­ized it to such a degree that your aver­age foot­ball hooli­gan could iden­ti­fy his voice from a record­ing. Over a bil­lion view­ers tuned in to catch it on 1994’s Three Tenors spe­cial on TV, then rushed out to buy the sub­se­quent live album, a rare crossover hit.

Franklin wasn’t total­ly green in the Puc­ci­ni depart­ment. As mas­ter of cer­e­monies Sting informed the crowd, she’d per­formed the song two nights ear­li­er at a fundrais­er for Musi­Cares. Still, a fair amount of chutz­pah was nec­es­sary.

Nat­u­ral­ly, a hand­ful of opera purists refused to fall under the spell, even when Franklin hit that cel­e­brat­ed high B, but they seem to com­prise a minor­i­ty.

Pavarot­ti, whom Sting pre­sent­ed with a liv­ing Leg­end Gram­my imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing Franklin’s per­for­mance, died in 2007.

As for that oth­er Gram­my leg­end, Franklin reprised “Nes­sun Dor­ma” for Pope Fran­cis in Philadel­phia last fall, again putting her per­son­al stamp on it by switch­ing from Ital­ian to Eng­lish mid­way through.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pavarot­ti Sings with Lou Reed, Sting, James Brown and Oth­er Friends

Duel­ing Divas: Aretha Franklin and Dionne War­wick Sing Two Clas­sic Ver­sions of ‘I Say a Lit­tle Prayer’

The Queen of Soul Con­quers Europe: Aretha Franklin in Ams­ter­dam, 1968

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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Comments (8)
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  • Makenzie says:

    I think it could be a lit­tle more vivid„, maybe talk about the peo­ple she hates.

  • Operaman says:

    A cou­ple thought for the haters out there: 1. This is Aretha. She isn’t going to sing it “as writ­ten.” 2. Her soul­ful orna­men­ta­tion is just as valid in her genre as trills and grace notes are in Pavarot­ti’s. 3. If her per­for­mance does­n’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, you have no real appre­ci­a­tion for the human voice or the uses to which it can be put.

  • Visconti says:

    I could live with the Amer­i­can accent but her tim­ing is total­ly off. It was a brave move to step in for Pavarot­ti though.

  • Theresa says:

    I heard this live in 1998 every­one I mean every­one in the audi­ence went crazy. So many artists were in tears because it is so mov­ing. The fact that she would do this for a friend did so well.
    And I might for most of the price her eyes were closed, no tel­la pro­mot­er. Haters get a life.

  • Mark Gabrish Conlan says:

    Beg­ging your par­don, but I thought it sucked! I vivid­ly remem­ber this from the orig­i­nal tele­cast and thought Aretha Franklin was total­ly at sea with the require­ments of this aria. There were plen­ty of gen­uine oper­at­ic tenors out there who could have “subbed” for Pavarot­ti and who at least had a basic knowl­edge of how this music should go. Aretha Franklin is an extra­or­di­nary tal­ent when she sticks to the gospel-soul music that she does best and which made her a star, but she was nev­er able to sing jazz (her pre­de­ces­sor as the Queen of Soul, Dinah Wash­ing­ton, was a GREAT jazz singer, but for some rea­son Aretha has nev­er “felt” the loos­er rhythms of jazz the way she does the rock-sol­id beat of soul) and she had no under­stand­ing at all for the way oper­at­ic music is sup­posed to go. Then again, if Luciano Pavarot­ti had ever sung “Chain of Fools,” I prob­a­bly would­n’t have liked that, either!

  • Maureen Roland says:

    Oh, get into the spir­it of the ges­ture and stop being such an opera nazi. Try to imag­ine Pavarot­ti fill­ing in for her singing RESPECT. Of course it won’t be per­fect, but, not only did it sure take guts, but she sang it with heart as well as soul. You want a per­fect opera aria? Go to the Met.

  • tm says:

    Opera snob and soul fan. And you can’t fault that per­for­mance!!! Wow. loved it. How did i miss this… think i have my head in the sand that year. Ah yes… it’s com­ing back to me.

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