DETROIT (WJBK) - She was beloved as the Queen of Soul, but Aretha Franklin's immense talent also extended to the world of opera.
Renowned Detroit soprano Mary Callaghan Lynch, founder and artistic director of the Motor City Lyric Opera, first started coaching Aretha Franklin in 1998.
"She was very close with Luciano Pavarotti and his signature aria is Nessun Dorma. He was hosting a party in New York and he asked her to sing it," she tells us. "We thought this would be a one-shot deal for this private party but, as fate would have it, she was in New York, did this party - she doesn't fly so she was still in New York when the Grammys happened - and Luciano Pavarotti became ill and, truly, she had a 30 minute notice, no rehearsal, and went on the at the Grammys singing the Nessun Dorma."
It was a stunning performance and the start of a beautiful, collaborative friendship that would span more than twenty years.
"When I would teach her an aria she'd like me to go travel with her so I that would do the first rehearsal with the orchestra. She'd watch me and listen to me and then she'd get up and do it," Callaghan Lynch says. "It was funny because conductors would say, 'Mary, so how do you conduct Aretha Franklin?' - And I said, you don't conduct Aretha, you just keep going and trust her because she was an such extraordinary, really improvisational singer."
Callaghan Lynch says Aretha brought out a spiritual side in her when she'd sing.
"Whenever I would listen to Aretha, I would really feel close to God. I think there was something very divine about her. She was immersed; her indoctrination was in gospel and that was always a part of her. So, it was something just so extraordinary whenever I would hear her, whether it was a performance or in a rehersal and it was such a gift. She was given such a gift and she honored it."
Callaghan Lynch describes Franklin as an "eager student," saying she had a great ear and a passion for the art. She says Franklin fell in love with opera and that Puccini was her favorite composer.
Over the years, Franklin served as a board member and financial supporter of the Motor City Lyric Opera.
"We've had to share Aretha, but she's really ours," Callaghan Lynch says, laughing. "I like to think that she's our queen; she's Detroit's queen. We've been very generous with sharing her with the world, but just think about it; she could have lived anywhere and she stayed here."
The last aria they were working on was Marietta's Lied Zur Laute from Die Tote Stadt.
"I just wish she could have completed it; she loved it," Callaghan Lynch says. "She texted me maybe three and half, four weeks now and she wanted to get together. I was literally getting ready to leave and I get a text and she said, 'Mary, I'm so sorry. I'm going to have to cancel.' I was supposed to meet her at 3 o'clock and it was 2 o'clock and I was leaving, and she said, 'but I'll see you again; we'll work together again.'
"She was still so fierce and wanting to learn, even when she was struggling at the end. That says so much about her. What a fierce woman, and that hunger to learn, to still sing."