Prima donna

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A prima donna ( Italian , actually “first lady”) was originally the “first” singer in an opera company, she sang the leading role in an opera. The originally neutral or even objective term experienced a change in meaning over time and is sometimes understood negatively or pejoratively today .


Since the 17th century, the most important female singer in an Italian opera company or an opera was called prima donna , while the most important male singer - usually a castrato - was called primo uomo (Italian: first man). The second most important roles were called seconda donna (second lady) and secondo uomo (second man). Originally, this did not mean a gradation according to the exact pitch, prima donna and primo uomowere therefore not necessarily the singer with the highest voice, especially since sopranos in the Baroque era were not necessarily brought up to their upper limit. For example, the alto Senesino was a primo uomo . Nevertheless, the system of the first or second singers was not completely arbitrary, but was related to certain qualities of a singer, such as vocal beauty, size and volume of the voice, virtuosity in ornamentation (including trills ) and coloratura , and expressiveness. Age, maturity, fame or fame also played a role. So very young, adolescent singers usually did not start immediately as prima donna or primo uomo , but could quickly advance to it if they had the appropriate qualities.

In the system of the opera seria of the 18th century, there were precisely prescribed gradations between the singers, so the prima / primo parts were entitled to most of the arias (usually 5 each), which also had to be particularly varied, the seconda / secondo -Parts received correspondingly fewer arias (e.g. 3 each) etc.

Over time, as early as the 18th century, there was an increasing preference for soprano voices, which were soon taken higher and higher. Even Handel preferred as the tone of the prima donna , a soprano . For example, two prima donnas were temporarily employed at his opera house: Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni . The latter's voice later evolved into a mezzo-soprano or alto, but in terms of status and outstanding musical qualities, it remained a prima donna .

In the case of two almost equal singers, a distinction was made between the prima donna assoluta (Italian: absolute prima donna) and the subordinate prima donna altra (Italian: other prima donna). An example of this is Donizetti's opera Maria Stuarda (1834/35) with two almost equal female roles (the title role and Queen Elisabeth). The term prima donna assoluta also means a singer who is so outstanding that she surpasses many or all of the other prima donnas.

When the opera buffa became more and more popular in the second half of the 18th and early 19th centuries, a distinction was made between a primadonna seria and a primadonna buffa , as there were female singers who were primarily or exclusively suitable for tragic roles were, such as B. the primadonna seria Giuditta Pasta , while others were particularly suitable for the comic opera in terms of vocal character and temperament. However, one could be both at the same time.

After the castrati "died out" on the opera stage for various reasons at the beginning of the 19th century, only the prima donna remained, some of which were often very popular with the audience (examples: Angelica Catalani , Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran , Henriette Sontag , Eugenia Tadolini , Fanny Persiani and Jenny Lind ).

Maria Callas is seen as the unrivaled “ prima donna assoluta ” of the 20th century . The Neue Zürcher Zeitung attested the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko “a phenomenal voice control” and described her as “probably the only remaining prima donna assoluta of our time”.

Figurative meaning

Prima donnas (like neuters) were often considered particularly capricious. After opera and musical taste changed dramatically in the 19th century and the word prima donna appeared torn out of its original context, there was a shift in meaning that finally brought the negative aftertaste to the fore. Later, the press and the public also came up with the term diva (Italian: diva = goddess), which on the one hand denotes some outstanding quality, but is also often associated with capricious and whimsical airs (and is not necessarily limited to female singers). Rivalries between “prima donnas” like Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi were often mercilessly exploited and hyped up in the media , and the term itself was thereby completely corrupted.

Today the term is rarely used in the original sense, especially in specialist circles, whereas difficult, self-absorbed women or men are sometimes referred to as “prima donna-like”.


Web links

Wiktionary: Primadonna  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Gerhard Dietel: Primadonna. In: Dictionary Music , Digital Library Volume 139, p. 3851 (see print edition p. 237).
  2. Anna Netrebko in Salzburg: Buttercrème und Pathos , NZZ, July 29, 2019.