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

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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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