Aretha Franklin and “Nessun Dorma”

Aretha Franklin singing “Nessun Dorma”

Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma”

Yes, there is some very unoperatic ornamentation at the end, but that’s what a cadenza is meant for. This music isn’t meant to be mummified. It’s music. It’s meant to be alive, to quiver and thrill, to push the boundaries and bleed when you cut it.

Note that it’s on pitch as well, and thus the classification of “alto,” “contralto,” and “tenor” are as mixed between opera and popular music as that of “tenor” and “countertenor” are in male voices. Note also that the skepticism and melodramatic astonishment over the “chest voices” of “rare” operatic contraltos speaks of an ignorance of popular voice on the part of far too many opera intellectuals, exactly equal to that of the (false) conviction that natural male altos do not exist. Too many voice lovers appear to plug up their ears when they hear Neil Sedaka or Gladys Knight. I keep thinking of Maria Callas’s conviction that a singer had no business saying that they “can’t” sing a certain type of music, and Andreas Scholl’s eagerness to show respect for Jimmy Somerville’s falsetto. I’m also reminded of the times I’ve listened to the gigue from “Giulio Cesare” and wondered how it would sound if covered by a good four-piece rock band.

If only I could have heard Steve Perry or Art Garfunkel sing “Con rauco mormorio.” I would pay dearly to hear Aretha Franklin sing any other tenor arias. How magnificent.

And how lovely to hear opera treated as living music. It’s so often fossilized as music of the indolent wealthy that hasn’t changed in 200 years, and coming from a family of immigrant stonemasons all of whom considered the quartet from “Rigoletto” to be the most perfect piece of music ever written, that’s never sat well with me.

Opera is popular music, music of the people — specifically, music of my people. It’s the music of people with machine oil in their thumbprints, of people who work at blue- and pink-collar jobs, people who carry lunchpails to work and have toolchests in their dining rooms. Opera is alive, and it’s not owned by people who use it to elevate themselves above the common “rabble” and who would fight to keep it covered in dust. Opera must live, or it’s going to die, and in that case it will deserve to.

If you love something, why on Earth would you wish to see it embalmed?