In the world of opera, the term “diva” is reserved for a select few. It has nothing to do with outlandish offstage behavior and everything to do with a true gift for communicating in song. It’s the Italian word for “goddess,” but when used for a performer, it’s more like someone touched by the divine for the general betterment of the rest of us.
At first, Aretha Franklin embodied that description literally, as the gospel-singing daughter of the most famous preacher of the day. But then she took it further -- to the blues, R&B, pop and even opera itself.
When she stepped in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards with a sui generis rendition of “Nessun Dorma” -- the exultant aria and great showpiece from Puccini’s Turandot -- the selection itself didn’t necessarily make this a diva move. It was the way Franklin sang it, laying down the soft, pillowy opening lines with an uncanny sense for back phrasing before launching into the gutsy finale with a splash of top notes of her own devising. The thrill of it, too, came from the last-minute substitution, the daredevilry and the triumph, with a song that climaxed on the word “vincerò” (I will win). Likewise, when she sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015, she knew the exact moment to drop her fur coat to the floor -- an act of womanly self-possession -- as her voice soared to the heights.