Performance review: ARETHA, Sydney Opera House

A musical celebration of the life and legacy of the late, great Aretha Franklin.

ARETHA: A Love Letter to the Queen of Soul had a sell-out world premiere in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday. Featuring a superb eight-piece band and five impressive singers, this is a memorable memoir and fitting tribute to a woman who was a brilliant performer and important trailblazer. Actor Jada Alberts takes the on-stage role of the Narrator; Alberts is also the show’s director.

Aretha Franklin made music that encapsulated the times. Her songs were a clarion call to the issues of the day such as female empowerment, liberation and racism. Themes of respect, independence and freedom echoed loud and clear as she sang with passion and determination. She was indeed “young, gifted and black”. She quickly became recognised as the voice of her generation and an icon for the many performers who followed her path. 

This show is a wonderful celebration of Franklin’s important musical legacy. Her contribution to the annals of popular music is obviously immense, and these songs are so much a part of our collective cultural DNA that they are instantly recognisable from just the first few notes. They are timeless classics, anthems for us all, and the ones guaranteed to get everyone up and dancing. Who doesn’t turn up the volume to ‘Natural Woman’ or ‘Respect’ to sing along at the top of their voice?

More than 30 great songs are featured in the show, tied together with a few insights into Franklin’s life from the Narrator. Her family, her upbringing and the influence of her religious father, her personal relationships and the stories behind some of her biggest hits, are interwoven between the songs. But these brief biographical notes are just that – footnotes to a much more complex life than can be revealed in just a few short sentences.

The show focuses on the challenges of her life, the pain and sadness – sharing a little more of the bright side, her passions, successes and happiness would make for a more satisfying and well-rounded memoir. This is, nonetheless, a genuine celebration of her life. And it was an impressive life. Franklin broke down barriers and paved the way for many to follow. She was the first woman admitted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the winner of 18 Grammy Awards. She sold more than 75 million records and was voted in top place on the ‘Greatest Singers of All Time’ by Rolling Stone.

But it really is all about the songs and this show is a great celebration of her music, performed with feeling under the excellent musical direction of Joe Accaria. The band sets the scene, creating a thrilling wall of sound. The five outstanding Australian vocalists – Emma Donovan, Ursula Yovich, Thandi Phoenix, Montaigne and Thndo – are all on stage throughout. They sing together, individually and in various combinations. Each has their own vocal strength, their own unique stage presence and plenty of opportunity to shine. Importantly, the singers are not trying to ‘be’ Franklin – they sing the songs in their own style and not as impersonators. This is an homage and a celebration of a life more than just a tribute show.

The songs reflect the span of her career, the depth and range of her art, and the miracle of her voice. From classic soul to ballads and disco, it’s all here. ‘Spanish Harlem’, a song covered by everyone from Cliff Richard to Tom Jones, shows a softer side to Franklin’s singing. ‘Say A Little Prayer’ talks to her gospel roots and ‘Sisters Are Doin’ it for Themselves’ had the entire audience on their feet when this reviewer attended.

Read: Book review: The Terrible Event, David Cohen

ARETHA is indeed a fitting love letter to the queen of soul and an opportunity to see an impressive line-up of vocalists and musicians. You will be singing these songs in your head long after the show finishes!

ARETHA: A Love Letter to the Queen of Soul

ARETHA was performed 17-18 June at Sydney Opera House and 20 June at Queensland Performing Arts Centre. It will tour to Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne on 2 July 2023.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.