Prima donna, Italian for “first lady,” refers to the leading lady in an opera, the singer of the principal female role. The term has been in use since the 1600s, the earliest days of opera, and by the 1700s it was already associated with the artistic and commercial cult of the glamorous leading lady… and with singers who were monumentally demanding egomaniacs—to put it politely.
Some prima donnas have demanded to be called prima donna assoluta, “absolute leading lady,” and in the bad old days some hired claques to cheer them and throw flowers, and to boo and hiss other singers. To a certain extent, the clout of prima donnas—and of famous leading men, for that matter—has influenced the course of music history, because big stars have often insisted that composers tailor the style and number of arias in an opera to the stars’ particular strengths and desires. The stereotype of the impossible prima donna still flourishes in the world of opera, but let’s face it, you can find prima donnas in any field, and the vast majority of today’s singers are conscientious musicians and unpretentious people.
I’m Miles Hoffman, and this has been A Minute with Miles.