By 1998, the legend and genius of Aretha Franklin had already been entrenched in the collective consciousness of the American public. Her priceless rendering of Otis Redding’s “Respect” rose to critical acclaim as the anthem for the civil rights and gender equality movements.
But that night of the 1998 Grammy Awards wasn’t to be about cultural commentary; it was to unveil to the world a rare glimpse of a beau ideal diva. You see, the word ‘diva’ is Italian for goddess. In contemporary pop culture, it may be associated with zany offstage behavior and risqué conduct. However, in opera, it has a more fundamental nuance that harps on traces of the divine in a performer’s rendition.
Fate set the ball rolling with the iconic tenor Luciano Pavarotti calling in sick 30 minutes after the start of the event. Aretha filled in at a moment’s notice with a sui generis delivery of “Nessun Dorma,” and in the process renewed a beloved aria that had evidently become a cliché.
The opening lines were soft and pillowy as she instinctively mired in exquisite back phrasing. This wasthe springboard for a class act that culminated in a gusty finale complete with a spatter of self-concocted top notes. The daredevilry and triumph of the last-minute substitution with a song that climaxed on the word “vincerò”—meaning ‘I will win’—was the ultimate thrill that capped off a spectacular diva move.
The aria was Puccini’s showpiece, but Franklin had made it hers like only she could. As Mary J. Blige opined, “When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her.”
It wasn’t her first and it wasn’t her last either. Aretha had begun to show glimpses of being an embodiment of the opera description of a diva early on in her gospel career. But she cemented her greatness when she crossed into the mainstream and expressed her unmistakable talent in its entirety across the blues, R&B, and pop genres; with a befitting legacy performance in opera.
In a magnificent career that spanned seven decades, she won 8 consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, 18 Grammys in total, and was the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Like opera immortals Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas, christened La Stupenda and La Divina respectively; Aretha Franklin too has an ageless honorific linked to her name forever—the Queen of Soul. A testament to her majestic divadom that melted the hearts of listeners and inspired countless musicians!