A prima donna is literally the “first lady” in Italian, the woman playing the lead role in an opera production. Over time, however, the term has taken on a more sinister meaning, referring to women who are selfish, egotistical, and temperamental. In this sense, it is used much like “diva,” another word with operatic origins which has come to be used in a disparaging way, much to the dismay of genuine performers, who tend to be extremely talented women who excel in the field of music.
The term originated in the middle of the 1600s, referring to the female playing the lead role in an opera. Many prima donnas were sopranos, historically, as leading roles are typically written for this voice, although a few operas feature a leading contralto or mezzo-soprano. This performer was typically entitled to certain rights as the leading woman in the opera, such as her own dressing room and special attentions from the director and composer to ensure that she looked and performed her best.
The male equivalent is a primo uomo. Both men and women in these roles were often highly esteemed by the rest of the opera company for their talent and contributions to the production, and this may have indirectly led to the modern sense of prima donna, as attention can goes to a performer's head. Over time, the term has come to be used to refer to people who are extremely difficult to work with, typically with high opinions of themselves that may not be shared by others.
The fact that this term originates in the music world is quite telling, as people in the arts are often assumed to be temperamental and tempestuous. In fact, many leading opera singers are very kind, gentle, serious people who are extremely focused on their work. A real leading lady has little time to be throwing fits and attracting attention because she must constantly work on her voice and acting skills to ensure that she remains at the top of her field.
It is unfortunate that the prima donna has acquired such negative connotations, as the soaring and beautiful voices of women like Maria Callas, Renee Fleming, Renata Tebaldi, and Nellie Melba have captivated millions of people. Because of the negative associations with the term, its use has become increasingly rare in the world of opera.