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.
Franklin’s fantastic flair for the dramatic and how to tie it to music was but one cornerstone of her divadom. Like the opera immortals Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, who were known as La Divina and La Stupenda, respectively, to fans, Franklin, the Queen of Soul, has an honorific linked to her name for all time. Like them, she cast a spell over listeners who hung on her every melisma and high note. And like Callas in particular, she had something urgent, authentic and emotionally unbridled to say in her singing — and she achieved greatness in the stylistic mastery with which she said it.