Even the unini­ti­ated knows the names of opera’s greatest com­posers: Wagner. Verdi. Puc­cini. The list goes on and on.

But an equally impor­tant force in shaping the art form has been over­looked and even dimin­ished to inac­cu­rate car­i­ca­tures, according to Hilary Poriss, asso­ciate pro­fessor of music in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design.

The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nine­teenth Cen­tury” was co-​​edited by Northeastern’s Hilary Poriss.

Poriss has co-​​edited a book on the role of opera’s leading female per­former, the prima donna, in shaping not only some of the most famous operas of the 19th and 20th cen­turies but also their world at large.

These women have been so maligned by his­tory that even the term has lost its meaning,” said Poriss, who edited “The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nine­teenth Cen­tury” with Rachel Cowgill, a pro­fessor of music at Cardiff Uni­ver­sity in Wales. “Now when we think of a prima donna, we think of these self-​​interested divas, which is not what these women were all about.”

In the 19th cen­tury, opera ranked near the top of the list of the world’s most pop­ular enter­tain­ment mediums, encour­aging prima donnas to vie for roles that made them look good for large audi­ences. Unsur­pris­ingly, prima donnas played active roles in shaping their per­for­mances and were easily among the most famous fig­ures of their day.

Prima donnas, Poriss explained, have become a key part of opera’s suc­cess across genres, including satire in Mozart’s “Der Schaus­pieldirektor; tragedy in Puccini’s Tosca; and as a metaphor for human frailty in Rufus Wainwright’s “Prima Donna.”

For some, the prima donna has come to stand for opera,” Poriss and Cowgill wrote in the book’s intro­duc­tion. “Others have resisted her allure as a tawdry dis­trac­tion from ‘proper’ atten­tion to the arts of the com­poser, and it would not be an exag­ger­a­tion to sug­gest that the influ­ence of the latter view has long been felt within opera scholarship.”

Poriss wrote a chapter of the book in which she explains how the prima donna has used her star power to ben­efit the com­mu­nity. Poriss opens the chapter with an anec­dote about prima donna Jenny Lind, a singer whose devo­tion to char­i­table causes prompted some of her con­tem­po­raries to label her a bore. The fic­tional com­poser Paul Brandt, a char­acter in a 1930 film about Lind called “A Lady’s Morals,” was no exception.

Your virtue has become legend. You are, per­haps, the most con­spic­u­ously pure woman of our times,” Brandt said. “And I must con­fess, I find it rather depressing.”

Poriss acknowl­edged that much of the myth sur­rounding the benev­o­lence of prima donnas has been exag­ger­ated, but not fab­ri­cated. These women did indeed use their posi­tion in society to help the less fortunate.

There is far more to these women than we have remem­bered,” Poriss said. “These are women who shaped opera as we know it today.”