Of the many musical terms that have made their way into general usage, one of the most colorful—and useful—is Prima donna. These days the term gets applied to anyone with an oversized ego—man or woman—but in Italian it simply means “first lady,” and it’s been in use since the 1600's as the title for the singer of an opera’s principal female role. By the 1700's the term was already associated with the artistic and commercial cult of the glamorous leading lady—a cult that met with little protest from the leading ladies themselves—and some prima donnas demanded to be called prima donna assoluta, “absolute leading lady.”
In the bad old days some prima donnas even hired claques to cheer them and throw flowers, and to boo and hiss other singers. The world of opera still produces the occasional impossible prima donna, it’s true, but let’s face it, you can find prima donnas in any field.
A Minute with Miles is a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.