Nessun dorma

“This is gonna be fun,” Aretha Franklin said to Ken Ehrlich as she approached the Grammy stage on February 25, 1998.

(a better quality version can be viewed here, but cannot be embedded)

On a windy, wintery Wednesday night, nearly 43 years after she made her first recordings, Aretha Franklin knocked the world off its axis. In a last-minute frenzy, she stepped in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and performed his signature aria “Nessun dorma,” live on the Grammy Awards. It gave the world cause to reexamine the Queen of Soul and further appreciate her brilliance. It also changed the course of her career. Suddenly there was talk of an opera LP, regular performances of the aria during concerts, and one impromptu at-home run-through in early 2018, which remains the last publicly shared footage of the Queen of Soul.

Two days before the Grammy Awards on Monday February 23, 1998, Aretha gave her first performance of “Nessun dorma.” She brought the crowd of 1,500 at the Waldorf Astoria to their feet with an unexpected rendition of the aria, a signature of Luciano Pavarotti. Pavarotti was honored that night as MusiCares’ Person of the Year, an award given for artistic achievement and dedication to philanthropy. At the time, few knew of Aretha’s love for opera, and that her favorite composer was Giacomo Puccini, who composed “Nessun dorma.”

“Nessun dorma,” comes from Puccini’s opera Turandot. The aria opens the opera’s third act, and is performed by the Prince, Calaf. After successfully solving three riddles from the Princess, Turandot, he’s won the ability to marry her. Since she does not want to marry him, he offers her a riddle of his own. If she can guess his name, she may have him killed. She orders her subjects to stay awake all night and find out his name before morning. If they fail, they will be killed. The aria translates to mean “none shall sleep” or “let no one sleep.”

Before getting into the show-stopping Grammy-night performance, let’s go back to that MusiCares event. The footage of the performance has never been officially released, but I have seen it (and if you scroll down, you can too!). The sound is a bit rough. For some reason Aretha’s mic doesn’t seem to be directly connected to the footage, but she can still be heard. Aretha shows off her range as she soars through the aria. However, early on, she can be seen conducting with one hand. She’s clearly having trouble getting the orchestra in time with where she is. Things do eventually level out though. She begins the aria in its original Italian, and then mixes in English before returning back to Italian for the conclusion.

The linguistic blending actually re-positions her from singing as the prince, to singing as another character in the opera. Two characters in the opera know the prince’s name. His father Timur, who is a former king, and Liú, a slave-girl who is loyal to Timur. After “Nessun dorma” is performed in the opera, Timur and Liú are identified as people who know the prince. They’re brought before Princess Turandot and tortured in hopes of revealing his name. Liú refuses to name him, and is tortured until she stabs herself to death. That possibly unintentional change adds gravity to the words. The aria ends with “At dawn, I will win!” Liú doesn’t make it to dawn, but imagining her declaring that as she takes her own life, is tremendous.

Back to MusiCares. As Aretha finishes the aria, the crowd has already surged to their feet to applaud. Pavarotti can be seen cheering her on, before coughing into a napkin, foreshadowing his absence on Grammy night. Afterwards, she treats the crowd to a performance of “Respect,” and then Pavarotti joins her on stage and makes a few remarks. “I have a deep thought in my mind. It’s also scaring me,” he said. “The day after tomorrow,” he began, “I (am) supposed to sing this song that you have done here tonight. I hope that none of you will be there! You were sensational! Absolutely.”

The story goes that the day after the MusicCares dinner, Pavarotti attended rehearsals, though he did not sing. That wasn’t out of the ordinary. After the rehearsals, he was all set to perform “Nessun Dorma” the following evening, as well as receive the Grammy Living Legend award, to be presented by Sting.

Now, as Aretha would often say, “we’re going to go back to the Grammys.”

Picture it: Radio City Music Hall, 1998.

Aretha arrived at the 1998 Grammy Awards with two tasks at hand. She was scheduled to do a quick touch of “Respect” to promote her appearance in the recently-released film Blues Brothers 2000, and present the Grammy for Best New Artist. Her performance largely went off without a hitch and she awarded Best New Artist to a gobsmacked Paula Cole, who’s first words were “this is my dream, getting this award from Aretha Franklin.” And with that, Aretha’s work was done for the night. She went back to her dressing room and prepared to depart. Until Ken Ehrlich appeared at her dressing room door.

Not long before, the sore throat Pavarotti was experiencing apparently reared its’ ugly head. For some reason, he waited until the absolute last moment to inform longtime Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich that he wouldn’t perform. By the time Pavarotti called, the show was underway. Chaos ensued.

It wasn’t the first, or only surprise of the evening, either. Earlier that day, Barbra Streisand backed out of performing “Tell Him” with Celine Dion due to the flu, leaving Dion to dazzle the audience with “My Heart Will Go On.” During the show, Ol’ Dirty Bastard interrupted Shaun Colvin’s Song of the Year acceptance speech to decry Wu-Tang Clan’s earlier loss (in another category) with a rant that included the iconic “Wu-Tang is for the children” line. And who could forget Bob Dylan playing second fiddle in his own performance thanks to the Soy Bomb-emblazoned extra? But Aretha is the one who truly won the night. Back to the chaos.

Something needed to be done to fill that time. With a full orchestra and choir on hand, ideally, someone should sing “Nessun dorma.” One version of the story alleges that Sting was suggested to take Pavarotti’s place. He vehemently declined. The next thought was to ask Aretha to perform “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Then, someone remembered that Aretha performed the song just two days earlier, and Ehrlich decided to take a shot in the dark and ask Aretha to perform the aria.

Ken Ehrlich has said that he can count on one hand the number of times he left his post during his decades-long tenure producing the Grammys. This was one of those times. He has often recalled running up the stairs to Aretha’s dressing room and making the request. After agreeing to the task at hand, Aretha recalled sitting quietly while surrounded by bedlam. A boombox was located so she could sit and listen to the recording of the rehearsal and hear the score. She met with the conductor and exchanged notes. Before she knew it, Ken was holding her hand and escorting her down the stairs and to the stage. During a post-show interview on the Grammys red carpet, Aretha revealed that she received the request to perform “about eight minutes” before she took the stage. EIGHT.

When they arrived, Aretha marveled at the staging. Ken has said that it’s one of the largest groups of musicians he ever had on a Grammy stage at once. As she prepared to take the stage, she squeezed his hand and said “Oooo. This is gonna be fun.”

Watching Aretha Franklin perform an aria on the fly is a spellbinding experience. After mouthing a “thank you,” to the anxious crowd, she takes a deep breath as the chorus and the orchestra begin. Aretha diligently watches the conductor for her cue, and descends to the depths of her vocal register. Be mindful, though this arrangement is similar to the one she performed two days earlier, it’s three keys below her own.

She comes in early in one spot, and late in another. Though it may not be intentional here, any seasoned Aretha listener will tell you that Aretha knew how to bend musical time to her liking. It was standard fare for her. Aretha often delivered her vocal exactly where she wanted, regardless of time. But it’s easy to see that these aren’t intentional embellishments: she plays it extremely close to the chest for most of the aria.

As the score progresses, Aretha moves cautiously, yet confidently, through the aria. Her voice is immaculate. The trifecta of her voice being warmed up after already performing that night, being blasted with air conditioning, and singing in a key three steps down from her own created a perfect storm. “It actually turned out to be in just the right key for where my voice was at,” she told Regis and Kathy Lee a few weeks later. Her lows are rich and luscious. Her highs are heavenly. Her performance proves more than successful.

And then she reaches the first syllable of the aria’s final word, “vincero.” She adds a sweet, ascending touch of melisma. It’s her first intentional embellishment that signals her confidence and foreshadows what’s to come. Now that the tough part is over, Aretha can take some liberties. As the orchestra crescendos into the grand finale, Aretha holds nothing back. After being largely restricted to her lower register she takes flight and soars into her highest highs issuing run after run on that final word “vincero” with ferocious superiority. It’s a victory lap after just eight-minutes of prep-time.

The audience is already on its feet and roaring before she finishes her final vocal run. Faith Hill is seen wiping tears from her eyes. Celine Dion is visibly overwhelmed. Vince Gill is thrilled. They continue to applaud her for more than a minute.

After the Grammys, Aretha found herself projected back into the stratosphere occupied at the time by newer artists. The effects of her performance trickled down into more attention when her upcoming new album A Rose Is Still A Rose was released two weeks later. And suddenly, there was demand for Aretha’s opera interpretations.

Up to that point, Aretha’s love for classical music wasn’t well-known or publicized. In the immediate aftermath, it became a focal point of conversation with Aretha. She was even the Honorary Chair for The National Opera Center of America’s National Opera Week in 2012. There was endless talk of Aretha recording an entire opera album, which never came to fruition. It did however, give way to Aretha incorporating “Nessun dorma” and other arias into her repertoire for years to come.

“Nessun Dorma” was also released as a b-side to Rose single “Here We Go Again,” and on a 1999 Arista compilation titled Ultimate Divas. The “Here We Go Again” single associates the recording being from the MusicCares dinner leading up to the Grammys, though many have mistaken it for the actual Grammy performance. This same release was later billed as the Grammy performance on compilations Jewels in the Crown and ARETHA. At the time, unless you recorded the show on VHS, it would be hard to argue that it wasn’t.

However, the released version of “Nessun Dorma” is neither of these. Aretha’s vocal is a studio recording. The footage of the MusiCares performance, terrible sound aside, projects enough to prove that it is not the performance that was released. Hopefully one day the Grammy performance will be formally released.

Aretha took the aria everywhere with her. She left President Bill Clinton awestruck at the 1999 White House Correspondents Dinner in May, as she demolished the aria once again. She performed it again just a few weeks later on Late Night with David Letterman. It was also a focal point of her set during VH1 Divas 2001: The One And Only Aretha Franklin. In 2010 she even performed it with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Aretha’s last documented in-concert performance of “Nessun dorma” was of particular note. It took place in Philadelphia in September 2015, at the Festival of Families. The event marked the conclusion of the first United States visit for Pope Francis. The performance is something magical. Seventeen years later, it showcases how her voice has changed. Her lows are rich as ever. Her mids are transformed, and while some of her highs don’t come as easily, others flow effortlessly. As she reaches the end of the aria, she struggles with the first note she hits, so she goes up, in a maneuver of brilliance. Then she goes even higher. And just as she’s finishing her final stanzas, a little boy, no more than 8, appears at her side, hugging her. It throws her for a millisecond and she manages to wrap her arm around him while not missing a beat as she delivers her final “vincero.”

On a somber note, it’s also the last song the public has ever heard her sing. The day she passed away, her granddaughter Victorie took to Twitter and shared a video of her grandmother. With a filter to make it look like an old video camera recording, the video is dated March 17, 2018 at 9:48pm, almost 5 months before her death. Aretha is seated at a keyboard, and looks frail, with a hospital bracelet on her wrist. She casually plays through “Nessun dorma” as she accompanies herself on the keyboard. It’s the only time she’s ever been seen playing the song on the piano. It reads as a very off-the-cuff, unscripted moment at home with grandma.

Aretha doesn’t play at any tempo, nor focuses on getting the words all out, but still delivering it exactly as she envisions. At one point she pauses, looks directly towards the camera and gives it a kiss accompanied by a “MWAH!”, which elicits a giggle out of Victorie. It’s not just the last footage of Aretha performing, it’s also the last publicly seen visual of Aretha, and it humanizes her in a way that few other videos ever did. There’s so much warmth in this private moment. It’s beautiful, yet bittersweet.

While she doesn’t sing it in this video, the final word in most arrangements of “Nessun dorma” is “vincero”, or “I will win.” If you listen closely, the last note you’ll hear her hit vocally actually sounds like two independent notes being hit at once, a la Lalah Hathaway. Leave it to Aretha to end on two notes.

Opera purists still attempt to diminish her performance, one even going as far as to say, “it was not Puccini in any way. She didn’t know the words.” But that’s a purist for you. Think for a second, what would have happened if Aretha abided by the purists at any point in time. Would she be Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, who forged the unification of gospel and pop started by the likes of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles before her? No. So, to hell with the purists. Aretha singing opera is a treasure. Vincero.

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