In opera or commedia dell'arte, a prima donna ([ˈpriːma ˈdɔnna]; plural: prime donne; Italian for "first lady") is the leading female singer in the company, the person to whom the prime roles would be given.
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 having an inflated view of oneself and a narcissistic attitude.
In 19th-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 principal soprano of the company, would typically perform leading roles and generally sang more music than other women in the company. Famous opera prime donne 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. It has also been used to describe the creators of heroic coloratura roles in the first half of the 19th century.
The female who sang the second major part in an opera was, correspondingly, referred to as the seconda donna; by the late 18th century, this role was sometimes called the altra prima donna.
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 consummate talent and 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 of 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.
In cases where unpleasant behaviour on the part of the person with the supposedly "inflated" view of their own importance is thoroughly tolerated while facing few professional repercussions, the prima donna might actually hold an accurate view of his or her importance within the venture, and the lesser lights complaining of the difficult person having an inflated self-image could instead be viewed as spreading malign gossip from a posture of talent envy.
- 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 0486250474.
- Oxford English Dictionary (Draft revision 2009).
- Riggs, Geoffrey (2003). The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797–1847, p. 1. McFarland. ISBN 0786414014.
- Seconda donna. Oxford Music Online, 2002.
- 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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