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What is a Prima Donna?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon250790 — On Feb 27, 2012

I am in a band and I have a "prima donna". She always has to have a fan, water, the best gowns and so forth. For her, it's all about looking the part, and not really putting the effort into sounding better- or learning her instrument. She is mediocre at best.

For having played 14 yrs of guitar, she sounds like someone who has played three years. She is quick to tell me and others in the band what 'key' the music is in, yet she herself has a fourth of our experience! I've hand-fed her for a year now, and honestly, I'm done. At this point, I'm looking to move on when the timing is right.

She'll take the bow during a performance, even if the venue has a smattering of people in attendance. It's so frustrating! Last week, she spent four hours playing dress up instead of attending to practicing the damn music. I almost left. I love her dearly, but am so done.

By subway11 — On Jun 28, 2011

@Bhutan - Wow, that must have been hard to deal with. I read that a lot of times people that are prima donnas were overly indulged as kids, so they grew up with an entitlement mentality. There are lots of people that feel that they are entitled to things because their parents allowed them to think this way.

For example, my husband’s cousin quit a six figure job in this economy because she had a disagreement with her boss. To top that off, she lives in an expensive area in New York City in a very expensive apartment that her father pays for her. Although she quit her job, she was asking her parents to buy her a million dollar apartment. Yet she has not job.

I was in shock because this is prima donna behavior. She feels that because of her abilities that she would be able to get a job quickly, but I don’t know if that is really possible. I think that prima donna thinking is very destructive because it gives you a false sense of security when you really need a dose of reality. She also has an explosive temper which is really a shame because she does have some talent but feels that she is entitled to live a luxurious lifestyle because she deserves it.

By Bhutan — On Jun 26, 2011

@Sunshine31 - I know what you are saying, but I do think that a lot of celebrities give to charities. I wanted to say that there are a lot of people that I would consider a prima donna yet none of these people are celebrities. My sister has a friend that really is somewhat narcissistic. She is very opinionated and always thinks so highly of herself.

She is constantly telling everyone about her accomplishments, and if waiter or waitress gets her order wrong, you can imagine what she does. She berates them and really embarrasses everyone around her. People like this really need therapy because they make everyone around them walk on egg shells. You really can’t reason with a prima donna because their opinion is the only one that matters and they claim to always be right.

By sunshine31 — On Jun 24, 2011

I just wanted to say that I think that a lot of celebrities can be prima donnas because they are so used to people catering to their needs. I think that the people around them are intimidated by their fame and just give in to their demands. I also think that some celebrities are really addicted to the fame and the adoration of fans and when they do not get top billing in a project they often lash out because they feel that they should be valued more.

It is really sad because people like this can also do a lot of good with their fame and raise money for very important charities. I think that celebrities that are prima donnas should really do more charity work so that they could really understand how other people really live.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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