(No) Practice Makes Perfect

(Video copyright National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences)

I love when the familiar is made new. I love when a performer leaves his or her comfort zone. And I love when these two things happen at the same time.

In 1998, Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to perform the aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot” opera at the Grammys. On doctor’s orders, he had to make an ultra-last-minute cancellation. Who steps in, with just twenty-two minutes to prepare? Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. In the clip above, you can hear the collective gasp of surprise when Sting announces the replacement. And then it seems as though the entire audience is holding its breath — would she make a fool of herself? Could she do justice to the song? What the hell were the producers thinking?

Franklin seems to have the same concerns herself. Right around the 30-second mark of the clip, just before she starts to sing, she makes a little exhalation, one that could signal a moment of centering, or a moment of oh-my-god-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into. It’s the equivalent of the nightmare where you’re standing in front of the classroom with no clothes on–but in this case, it’s actually happening, and in front of millions to boot. Perhaps not having any time to prepare was a mixed blessing, in this case — she had limited time to worry, little time to build up the jitters.

The first few notes are tentative. She comes in a little late at one measure, but quickly recovers. A few more lines go without incident, and very subtly, her body language changes as the orchestra swells. She begins to enjoy herself. Any attempt to evoke Pavarotti–if there ever was one to begin with–is completely abandoned.

Halfway through the performance, just before the choir comes in, a tone shift seems to take place. Franklin knows at this point that she’s made the song her own. It’s not quite opera, it’s definitely not soul — it’s something completely unique and only something she could do. The performance takes on a once-in-a-lifetime moment, something borne of an act of friendship. It’s also an act of consummate professionalism — of one artist taking up the mantle for another in an hour of need. What an understudy, and what a lucky audience was at the Grammys that night! The show must go on, and Aretha always puts on a damn great show.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

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