Diva: criticism or compliment?

21 July 2020
Woman stands with hand to her stomach looking pained, blue background.

Today, in red-top tabloid terms, if a woman is referred to as a ‘diva’ it usually means she’s difficult, temperamental and demanding. Why and when has the word diva, or its associated term ‘prima donna’, become such derogatory and sexist descriptions of women? Both words can be sourced to the world of opera in 18th and 19th century Italy. In a period of huge inequality between men and women in society, at least on the stage of opera houses, the female voice and talent was revered and celebrated quite as much as the top tenors of the day.

The Italian term prima donna, or ‘first lady’ describes the principal female singer in an opera or opera company, usually a soprano. The expression first came in to use in the late 17th century with the opening of the early public opera houses in Venice. It became the term to describe all leading female opera singers, synonymous with beautiful a voice and musical talent. Interestingly, there was no male equivalent. The word diva was derived from the Italian for a female deity, or goddess, and closely associated with prima donna. It emerged in the early 19th century when many leading sopranos became so famous and celebrated that they almost became goddess-like in the eyes of their adoring public – divine singers. A diva would be highly respected and well remunerated. The word entered into English opera house usage in the later 19th century. Diva also had a male equivalent, divo, which referred to the leading male voice in an opera, invariably a tenor, but it never gained the traction of diva. Even so, the popular male opera-classical crossover group Il Divo chose it as their name when they formed in 2004.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the famous prima donna in opera made it a point of their status to be exacting in their expectations. Soon, this operatic term mutated into something more about behaviour than ability. The word diva had also been appropriated more and more into theatre and the emerging world of cinema. In Italy diva denoted admired film stars and evolved to refer to any famous star of cinema, theatre, or popular music, but still in a reverential tone to highlight talent and ability as well as fame. By the mid-20th century both terms prima donna and diva, although still used in operatic terms, had become more generalised and slightly derogatory remarks referring to any ambitious, demanding woman in show business. Interesting that divo still retains its meaning as the leading and most talented tenor.

It is no surprise that words that originally highlighted women of talent and success mutated into an unflattering and disparaging description with its roots in sexism. Even today, the media reflects everyday sexism in its descriptions of women in the public eye. Female politicians or entertainers are patronised and criticised for being bossy and difficult ‘divas’ rather than just ambitious and assertive like their male counterparts. So, let’s reclaim diva and prima donna for their true and operatic meanings: in praise of women of sheer talent, star presence, ability and success in their chosen field. Beyoncé is the perfect diva of popular music: strong, brilliant, and supremely successful. Just as Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato, Cecilia Bartoli, Angela Gheorghiu, Mary Elizabeth Williams, Rebecca Evans and so many others, are our true divas of today. Brava prima donna!