Prima donna, Italian for "first lady", is a term originally used in opera or Commedia dell'arte companies to designate the leading female singer in the company, the person to whom the prime roles would be given. The prima donna was normally, but not necessarily, a soprano. The corresponding term for the male lead (almost always a tenor) is primo uomo.
Prime donne often had grand off-stage personalities and were seen as demanding of their colleagues. From its original usage in opera, the term has spread in contemporary usage to refer to anyone behaving in a demanding or temperamental fashion or has an inflated view of herself.
In nineteenth-century Italy, the leading woman in an opera or Commedia dell'arte company was known as the prima donna, literally the "first lady". This woman, usually the principle soprano of the company, would typically perform leading roles, and generally sang more music than other women in the company.
Famous opera prima donnas have often caused opera enthusiasts to divide into opposing "clubs" supporting one singer over another. The rivalry between the fans of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, for example, was one of the most famous, despite the friendship of the two singers.
The designation prima donna assoluta (absolute first lady) is occasionally applied to a prima donna of outstanding excellence. This is applied by popular consensus, to those whose achievements place them in a category above all others. Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson and Montserrat Caballe are considered such among their peers.
Modern usage outside opera
At times, these prime donne (the Italian plural form) were grand with their off-stage personalities, and demands on fellow troupe members, musicians, set and wardrobe designers, producers and other staff but were deferentially tolerated because of their commensurate talent and "pulling power", that is, their draw at the box office. From this experience, the term "prima donna" has come into common usage in any field denoting someone who behaves in a demanding, often temperamental fashion, revealing an inflated view of themselves, their talent, and their importance. Due to this association, the contemporary meaning of the word has taken on this negative connotation.
Today the term has become a mainstream word outside opera to often describe a vain, undisciplined, egotistical, obnoxious or temperamental person who finds it difficult to work under direction or as part of a team but whose contributions are essential to the success of a team.
- H. Rosenthal, H. and J. Warrack, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 1979. p. 398. ISBN 0-19-311321-X
- See for example, George Jellinek, Callas: Portrait of a Prima Donna, Dover, 1986, p. 96 and passim. ISBN 0-486-25047-4
- Oxford English Dictionary (Draft revision 2009)
- Susan Rutherford, The Prima Donna and Opera, 1815–1930, Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-521-85167-X
- The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English (2009). "prima donna". Encyclopedia.com. 12 Sep. 2010
- Merriam-Webster. "prima donna". Merriam-Webster.com
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