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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Aretha Franklin was both queen and diva

"Nessun Dorma"

“No words worthy,” tweeted Elvis Costello above a photo of a young Aretha Franklin, and it’s truly difficult to come up with proper verbiage to do justice to the preternatural singing prowess of the Queen of Soul following her passing. Luckily, her recordings and performance videos speak for themselves, especially the clip of one of her crowning achievements---the unexpected ease, gloriously demonstrated in her 1998 Grammy Awards performance of “Nessun Dorma,” with which she was able to unify two demanding vocal disciplines, gospel and opera, one largely spontaneous, the other intensely studied.

Opera also requires years of formal training, though Franklin’s music education began early, when she first sang gospel as a child in the church of her esteemed father, Baptist minister C.L. Franklin. She’d long been an institution by the time she took the Radio City Music Hall Grammy stage, having secularized her gospel music with decades of pop hits. She entered with the regal grace and presence that had long marked her concert appearances, then sang with the range and precision of an opera veteran, every ounce the female equal of Luciano Pavarotti, with whom she was supposed to have sung with, but didn’t bat an eye when he withdrew out of health reasons.

As it turned out, Pavarotti would only have detracted from Franklin’s majesty. Unlike so many singers who followed her, Franklin made her extraordinary ability seem effortless and almost self-contained. There was never a sense of showing off in her ornamentation, of cramming as many melismatic notes into a syllable or phrase solely to show that she could do it--as, of course she could. Indeed, she seemed almost restrained during “Nessun Dorma,”

investing each word of the renowned aria with purpose, substance over style, as she did always. Even when she lifted off into the stratosphere at the end, it was with the same exquisite taste.

That night, as all nights, she was as much diva as queen.



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