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The Arts of the Prima Donna

Prima Donnas book coverSnickers’ current advertising campaign – Have a Snickers, stop being a complete diva – has seen the likes of Joan Collins, Liza Minelli and Aretha Franklin playing up to the stereotypical image of the demanding, self-obsessed diva.

In the nineteenth century, to be a prima donna or diva required the possession of great musical talent, artistic technique and a singular presence. Nowadays, divahood is accorded because of (often negative) behaviour, often quite apart from any innate talent.

Prima donna simply means ‘first lady’ in Italian and in the early years of opera it was a neutral way of denoting the lead female role and principal singer…yet a US congressman recently described Afghan president Hamid Karzai as a “corrupt prima donna.”

Over the decades our understanding of the prima donna has become unmoored from the opera house. How has our understanding of its connotations changed over time and how does any of this relate to the control and commodification of female identities?

A new publication - The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century - traces the developing archetypes of the prima donna and diva, examining them as important iconic figures in the emergence of, and discourse around, new female identities at the beginning of a new century through to its close.

 “Female characters became increasingly prominent in the narratives of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century opera and the representation of women in opera has been addressed in a range of recent academic studies. What we have done, however, is to explore the myths and cultural presence that developed around women who created and inhabited operatic roles in dialogue with their lives, changing attributes, career management, and performances”, says Rachel Cowgill, Chair in Musicology at Cardiff University and one of the book’s co-editors.prima donna

“In a sense, being a prima donna in the nineteenth-century – a leading star in operatic circles – was an extraordinary identity for women to assume. It was just about the only professional career open to women, and gave them a licence to travel, sometimes without a chaperone, allowing them to push boundaries and take risks. These women began to draw a lot of attention from the press and from critics.”

“These top-billing women were an elite group of supremely gifted and highly trained singers and public devotion to them developed into a cult of celebrity. In the discourse surrounding female singers, prima donna and diva are intermingled. Early uses of diva attributed a goddess-like quality to women, initially as an ironic gesture, but one that was soon caught up in a flourishing of romantic rhetoric concerning femininity, philosophy and the arts.”

“This sense of liberation made the prima donna into a potentially threatening figure and this public image had to be heavily filtered through the press. The volume shows how critical, literary and artistic responses actively mediated between the prima donna and her audiences, representing the exotic, alluring and morally suspect women who graced the stage in a manner appropriate for consumption by respectable middle-class families.”

Emma CarelliOne of the case studies in the book examines the career of Emma Carelli, a soprano who went on to become impresario of a major Italian opera house – a career path traditionally reserved for men. Her success rivalled that of her male peers and yet her departure from traditional ideals of womanhood resulted in significant resistance to her management style and was responsible, at least in part, for her loss of celebrity and ouster in 1926.

The concept of attributing superlative – even celestial – status to a woman was met with distrust, unease and resentment in the nineteenth century. “It was almost as though art could transcend the possible, but the women responsible for bringing it to life were not allowed to claim agency or entitlement as a result. Many critics resisted the allure of a prima donna as a tawdry distraction from “proper” attention to the arts of the – male – composer. Unfortunately, this is a view which has influenced much opera scholarship up to the present day with the focus tending to be on either the composers or the female characters themselves, the mediated versions of operatic womanhood created by the male composer”, Rachel explains.

Gradually, the terms prima donna and diva came unmoored from their opera house origins. No longer confined to female singers, they began to evolve into pejoratives. These days, alluding to someone – male or female – as a prima donna or diva is to sometimes cast strong, even vicious aspersions on their personality, labelling them as spoiled, selfish, temperamental et cetera.

This appropriation of marks of respect and distinction once exclusively applied to women is perhaps just the latest stage in the long process of creating and controlling the figures embodied by the terms.

Rachel said: “Examining the arts of the prima donna has been revelatory. The culture of her celebrity, the emergence of the quasi-mythical figure of the diva, and the complexity of responses to her add new layers to not just the history of operatic composition, production and reception, but also to the history of gender, performativity, and the commodification of the female body.

“From the moment that the prima donna began capturing the imaginations of opera-goers, she has been mediated and in part defined through a predominantly male gaze.  However, she remains one of the most compelling figures in musical culture, both reflecting and inspiring debate on the relationships between femininity, vocality and performance. The arts through which she has earned that place were developed and honed over centuries, the product of a long and distinguished lineage of female artistry.
“The aim of our new publication has been to shed new light on the figures of the prima donna and diva, opening up new areas of inquiry and stimulating dialogue regarding the discourses that defined these women for spectators, musicians and critics.”

The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century is co-edited by Rachel Cowgill & Hilary Poriss and is published by Oxford University Press.


"Take a handful of enduring diva myths; add a large bunch of creative risk-takers; mix with intellectual vigour; watch the myths fade. This essay collection from Cowgill and Poriss is as exciting as it is addictive, re-evaluating the prima donna-real, fictional, or both-as a compelling cultural force." --Katharine Ellis, Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London

"Opera scholarship is no longer fixated on the composer and his/her efforts. Performers have become a center of interest, but what is a prima donna? or even a diva? While these essays, collected and superbly edited by Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss, provide no universal answers, their authors raise questions that will guide thinking for many years."
--Philip Gossett, Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, The University of Chicago