You may have heard a word that sounds like “premadonna” and thought of the pop star from the 1980s. But the phrase prima donna, sometimes spelled as primadonna without the space, arrived on the scene long before that particular prima donna singer. The original prima donna definition refers to another type of prima donna singer, one whose origins go all the way back to 19th-century Italy.
The Original Prima Donna Definition
The first prima donna definition came from the world of Italian opera. This prima donna meaning is a literal translation of the words “prima,” meaning first, and “donna,” meaning lady. The prima donna of an Italian opera is the operatic company’s best female singer. A prima donna singer is usually cast in lead roles. Traditionally, prima donne, the term for multiple prima donna, have been sopranos. The same leading roles for men would have been cast to primo uomini, which literally translates to first men. Primo uomini are usually tenors.
A New Prima Donna Meaning
The new prima donna meaning is almost synonymous with acting like a diva, but this new meaning didn’t come into being overnight. It developed because of a trend. For years, prima donnas in opera companies had big personalities and attitudes when things didn’t go their way. These tempestuous singers tended to demand the very best. They had infamous tempers. Over time, the title prima donna became associated with that kind of selfish behavior. And so the new meaning of prima donna as we know it was born.
Now, a prima donna doesn't have to be a singer – though they can be. Famous singers like Mariah Carey are known for wanting everything they have to be the best. Some celebrities even have the fulfillment of certain wants and needs required in their contracts. But prima donnas don't even have to be famous. If your friend demands everyone buy him a certain type of candy for his birthday and he pouts when he doesn't get his way, he might be a prima donna.
Are You a Prima Donna?
If someone has called you a prima donna, they may be saying that you’re difficult to work with. Don’t take it personally, but it may mean that you need to change your attitude. Prima donnas make every situation all about themselves. Going back to the term’s origin, if prima donnas are singers, they’re the ones who insist on all the solos. They demand their voices be heard above everyone else. Don’t be a prima donna. Learn to sing with the chorus, too.
- Callas: Portrait of a Prima Donna; George Jellinek
Rebecca Renner is a teacher and freelance writer from Daytona Beach, Florida. Her byline has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Glamour and elsewhere.