My name no one shall know!
November 26, 2019 11:20 AM   Subscribe

The tenor aria “Nessun Dorma,” from Act II of Puccini’s final opera Turandot, is one of the most famous in music. The prince Calaf has won the hand of the icy Princess Turandot by answering three riddles. But she’s not convinced, so he offers her a deal: if she can guess his name by morning, she can execute him. The song is his response to her decree that none of her subjects shall sleep until they discover his name. (And if they don’t, everyone dies.) First performed in 1926, the aria owes much of its fame to Luciano Pavarotti. It’s a staple of Got Talent shows, including by some surprisingly young singers. It adds drama to soundtracks as varied as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Bend it Like Beckham, and has been performed by everyone from Anohni (formerly of Antony and the Johnsons) to Jeff Beck. But the most poignant performance still has to be Aretha’s Franklin’s last-minute substitution for Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards.
posted by gottabefunky (19 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I've only ever heard Pavarotti sing it. Franklin gave me shivers!
posted by hanoixan at 11:33 AM on November 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

Not gonna lie, I skipped right to the Aretha Franklin link, and wow... Simply amazing.
posted by xedrik at 11:34 AM on November 26, 2019 [9 favorites]

Speaking of varied soundtracks, "Nessun Dorma" was also performed in an episode of Six Feet Under, "Nobody Sleeps", after an opera lighting designer dies of a heart condition and his partner arranges a tribute opera for him in the slumber room at Fisher & Diaz. Rico Diaz, who made fun of opera earlier in the episode, is seen to be nearly in tears during the song's performance. Here's the clip on YouTube.
posted by orange swan at 11:39 AM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I remember an episode of Six Feet Under that featured this aria as well.
posted by Bee'sWing at 11:45 AM on November 26, 2019

Grammys Producer Ken Ehrlich, from his book, on that performance:
"OK, if that's what you want."

Those words, spoken very quietly by Aretha Franklin in a cramped, hot, fourth-floor dressing room at Radio City Music Hall, on the night of the 40th Annual Grammy Awards, are the closest I can come to answering the question that I am most frequently asked—"What was the most tense moment in your career as a television producer?"

This is a tale of terror, unpredicatability, and ultimately, the truly amazing grace of a woman whose anthem song "Respect" took on a new and eternal meaning for me as a result of this one day in Grammy history.

Here's the situation: that afternoon at the dress rehearsal for the show, a tired but seemingly cooperative Luciano Pavarotti had worked his way through "Nessun Dorma," the operatic aria that we had all hoped would be the high point of a Grammy show that also contained performances by an amazing number of superstars, including Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Will Smith and Stevie Wonder.

But now it was showtime, and Pavarotti hadn't returned from his Central Park West apartment. He was scheduled somewhere in the middle of our three-hour show, so although my unwritten rule is that all talent is in the house before we go on the air, I wasn't overly concerned. There were plenty of other things to worry about.

We were about an hour into the show when my assistant Ron Basile rushed up to me offstage with a hastily scrawled number for Pavarotti at home. I found a quiet phone deep in the depths of Radio City, took a breath, and made the call.

You know what's coming.

"Ken, I'm sick. I can't come and sing. I will sing for you next year, but what will you do now?"

"First, Luciano, I will get off the phone and try to figure out how to fill four-and-a-half minutes of the Grammy Awards when we're already a half-hour into it."

Said with less harshness than the words indicate in print, it was still a critical situation that needed to be dealt with—and fast. And I might add, in my 20-plus years of doing live television, though we had faced artists dropping in and out of shows prior to their airing, this was the first time I had ever faced an act canceling after the show was already on the air.

My first thoughts were random. You don't work with people for 20 years without creating some long-term relationships in the business—and the Music Hall was filled with many of those folks that night. Should I go to Sting (who was introducing Pavarotti, but not performing that night) and ask him to perform? Among the performances still left in the show was one by Fleetwood Mac, and I thought about going to Lindsey Buckingham and asking him to extend their medley, which I had already trimmed to a tight five-and-a-half minutes. But how could I go to them after we had delicately negotiated them down from nine minutes in the beginning? Or should I think about going to Stevie, my old friend and someone who was always ready with something and ask him to do a second performance, in addition to his duet with Babyface?

One thing was certain, however. Though Kelsey Grammar was hosting the show, his strengths as an actor did not include ad-libbing—and I couldn't put him in the position of "stretching" for up to five minutes without material.

And then it struck me. Three days earlier Aretha (with whom I've worked for nearly 20 years) had sung the aria "Nessun Dorma" at the Musicares benefit dinner ... in another key, with another arrangement, without a full orchestra. She had told me numerous times over the years we've worked together that she always wanted to sing opera, but to ask her to sing it in front of millions ...

She was scheduled to perform about 30 minutes from the present moment in a brief, but fun Blues Brothers medley with Dan Aykroyd and John Goodman, doing "Respect" as only she could.

I called for my long-time friend and coordinating producer Tisha Fein and Phil Ramone, who had produced the Musicares event, and we raced up the four flights of stairs. We had about fifty minutes before we got to the highly anticipated Pavarotti performance (the nonperformance). When I got to Aretha's small, overheated dressing room, complete with vaporizer and hangers-on, she was fanning herself, quietly waiting to go on. And then we hit her with this lightning bolt of a statement.

"Aretha, we have a problem. I know it's short notice, but how would you like to sing twice tonight? Go out there and do 'Respect' and then 20 minutes later, supported by a 65-piece orchestra and a 20-voice chorus, do 'Nessun Dorma'?"

And that's when she uttered those words. I knew she would, even before I had taken the first steps up the heart-attack stairway in the bowels of Radio City Music Hall. I will always love the Queen of Soul.

And though to many people, that was the Night of Soybomb disrupting Bob Dylan's triumphant Grammy performance, and Ol' Dirty Bastard storming the stage to interrupt Shawn Colvin's well-deserved acceptance speech, for me the 40th Annual Grammy Awards will always be the Night Aretha Franklin Saved the Grammys—and not incidentally, my professional life.
posted by WCityMike at 11:51 AM on November 26, 2019 [39 favorites]

Also, Franklin's Kennedy Center performance of "Natural Woman" is just ... something to behold.
posted by WCityMike at 11:55 AM on November 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I am listening to all these sitting here in my office. This piece is so beautiful and moving no matter who is singing it! (and wow, Aretha Franklin) Totally trying to keep my shit together now, in case students come by to see me. *sniffle sniffle*
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:58 AM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

By the way, this is Aretha's Musicares performance – just two days prior! – that made the producer think of her for the last-minute substitution at the Grammys. Warning: although she's magnificent here as well, the recording is not great.
posted by WCityMike at 11:58 AM on November 26, 2019

This is a great post, and WCityMike, your comment literally made me cry. Aretha was such an amazing vocalist and personality, one of the most important in the 20th century. But her version of Nessun Dorma is not my favorite, at all. Maybe it's because Nessun Dorma isn't my favorite aria (this is), but I think it's more that Aretha's sensibility was so different from that of the romantic opera. My opinion doesn't matter much, and anyway I'd rather listen to Aretha performing anything else than any given Turandot performance. But I do think it's worth thinking about how every style and genre has its specific precision and quality.
posted by mumimor at 12:38 PM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not a big opera listener, but I surprised myself a bit by knowning what this piece was just from the title.

Seeing Pavarotti singing this gives me chills; so does Aretha Franklin's performance.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:44 PM on November 26, 2019

Turandot is infuriating. The title character is an evil dictator who tortures innocents to death and terrorizes her people. Calaf allows someone who loves him to be tortured to death so that Calaf can win his bet with Turandot. They fall in love and suffer no consequences, and we are expected to be happy for them. Also the opera as a whole is spectacularly racist.

When I think of this opera I can't escape the contrast between the beauty of the music and the moral horrorshow libretto.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:16 PM on November 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

Franklin's is my favorite, of course, but this Jose Carreras version is pretty good. Cf. Bjorling and Domingo.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:16 PM on November 26, 2019

I've heard this done by Pavorotti, Domingo and Brightman, and probably others. It is one of my favorite bits of opera, and I never tire of it. It's really a piece to be sung by a tenor or soprano, but Aretha makes perfect use of her magnificent alto voice. I won't call her performance my favorite, but I've never been quite so moved as I was by it. The woman was truly a pro. Thanks for posting this!
posted by lhauser at 7:17 PM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Nessun Dorma was used by the BBC as a theme for the 1990 World Cup in Italy:
It’s the night of the challenge, and the swaggering Prince sings of love, his self-assuredness, and the Kingdom staying up all night. The female chorus interjects, sure they’re all going to die. Calaf’s response is that iconic bellow: Vincerò! I can win.
It was taken up cheekily in 1994 though, by the Australian Special Broadcasting Service, the national multicultural broadcaster, which in the 1990s was famous for the two things it broadcast that no other channel bothered to: non-English movies (with lots of sex and nudity), and soccer. Australian soccer fans, obviously, watch live European and American football at a time differential, in the middle of the night or first thing in the early morning. So, in ads of people at work with bags under their eyes, SBS's emphasis wasn't on 'Vincerò', but on 'none shall sleep'...
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:20 PM on November 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Touchingly, Pavarotti's last public performance ever was a rendition of "Nessun Dorma" at the Opening Ceremony for the Olympics in Turin in 1996.

I also remember watching the Aretha Franklin performance in real time. I remember Sting announcing Aretha was filling in for Pavarotti and thinking "huh???" And then staring at the tv in slack-jawed amazement as she sang.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:47 PM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Nessun Dorma was used by the BBC as a theme for the 1990 World Cup in Italy:

Yeah, I can't hear Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma without thinking about Italia '90 and all that entailed. Ireland not only actually qualified for the World Cup (for the first time) but got through to the quarter finals. Most, if not all, of the country was in a state of slightly stunned celebration for most of that summer. Reeling in the Years 1990 snippet featuring part of the Irish experience of Italia '90 (for non-Irish, Reeling in the Years is a retrospective of a year with both Irish and international events and a contemporary soundtrack.)
posted by scorbet at 2:26 AM on November 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks for that link, scorbet, it literally brought tears to my eyes. I'm not even slightly interested in football, but for me Nessun Dorma is inextricably linked to summer 1990 in Dublin. Everyone (including me) went crazy in a really lovely way,

I was over from England for a cousin's wedding, which turned out to have been scheduled for the same day as the quarter-final. Everyone at the reception was glued to the telly, while the poor bride wandered about in her wedding dress with the train over her arm, muttering "I might as well not be here". Even though Ireland lost it was wonderful - God knows what would have happened it we'd won, probably everyone in the country would have just burst from sheer joy.

Anyway, back to Nessun Dorma. It's a wonderful aria, despite being from an opera with a daft and morally dubious plot (like many operas) but I suspect that for any british or Irish person who hears it, especially performed by Pavarotti, their immediate first thought is of football.
posted by Fuchsoid at 7:00 AM on November 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

And, as an opera singer (former, in my case), the entire world sends you links every time some mediocre amateur sings Nessun Dorma on a "Got Talent" show.

Sure, Aunt Susie, the mobile phone salesman was able to get through an opera aria more or less in tune with a microphone and canned music. Yes, that's so much more special than my music degrees and years of training and experience. Hang on, I've just received 20 more emails with the same link.

Why is there no reality show with amateurs, say, performing surgery or rewiring a house?

I won't say anything negative about Aretha (because Aretha), but the whole Aretha singing Nessun Dorma thing was... weird. I recognize that she was a last-minute replacement, but I watched it in real time and was just perplexed.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:59 AM on November 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

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