Of course, Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul, but a case can be made she was also royalty in the world of opera.
That’s thanks to a legendary performance at the 1998 Grammys where Franklin stepped in at the last minute for Luciano Pavarotti, who was too ill to perform.
Pavarotti had been scheduled to sing “Nessun Dorma,” an aria from Puccini’s “Turandot,” and his cancellation left a big hole in the show.
Franklin, who died Thursday, was able to fill that hole.
Ken Ehrlich, who produced that year’s telecast, remembered seeing Franklin perform the aria at a Pavarotti tribute a few nights earlier and he asked her to step in for the ailing singer, according to FarOutMagazine.co.uk.
Franklin was set to perform on the show as part of a remembrance of “The Blues Brothers” (she’s memorably performed “You Better Think” in the 1980 movie). But Ehrlich, upon learning of Pavarotti’s cancellation, went to her and asked for a favor ― a really big favor, since “Nessun Dorma” is a notoriously challenging song with a very high note at its climax, ClassicFM.com noted.
The aria is also written specifically for an operatic tenor, not a mezzo-soprano like Franklin.
Still, Ehrlich was running out of options as the awards ceremony crept closer.
He still remembers the moment:
“I just ran up to her dressing room, and asked her if she would do it,” he told FarOutMagazine. “And she said she wanted to hear the dress rehearsal.
“In those days we had a boombox with a cassette. And I brought it to her and played it for her. When she heard it, she said, ‘Yeah, I can do this’.”
Franklin flawlessly performed the aria in front of a global audience estimated at 1 billion, according to the Independent.
In the process, her performance was recognized by Billboard.com as one of the greatest awards show performances of all time.
That wasn’t the last time she performed “Nessun Dorma.”
In 2015, she performed it for Pope Francis during his tour of the United States, according to NBC News.
The original Grammy performance is unavailable online, but here’s the rendition she performed for the Pope.