The Dagmar Onassis Story (1984)

Written, Directed & Performed by John Kelly
Film Sequences by Anthony Chase
Set Design by Huck Snyder

Kelly’s admiration for the opera singer Maria Callas prodded him to create a somewhat autobiographical work in which he portrays a fan who is driven to embody her through the creation of her fictitious daughter, an obsessed punk diva named Dagmar Onassis. The antics of this female alter ego drives him to near self-destruction. He survives, as does his love of ‘La Divina’ Callas.

Originally performed live as a solo performance that interacted with super 8mm film projections by Anthony Chase, and the hand-painted sets by Kelly’s partner the visual artist Huck Snyder, who died of AIDS in 1993. The film sequences provided cinematic close-ups of the live stage action, debauched party locations, and documentary-style footage on the bar and in front of The Pyramid Club. This was Kelly’s first evening length performance work, an early collaboration with Mr. Chase. It premiered at the Pyramid Club in 1984, and was subsequently performed at the Collective for Living Cinema, Café Schmidt, in Berlin and Munich, and The Decade Show at the New Museum in 1990.

The work also includes appearances by Tanya Ransom, Marlene Menard, The Mona Lisa, Paula Swede (The Swedish Housewife), George Carstens, Tabboo! (Stephen Tashjian), Hapi Phace, Philly, Hattie Hathaway, Jimmy Paulette, David Crocket, Robin Cradle, Ira, and Kuka the South African Flying Pig Dog.



Human beings are fascinated by singing––we don’t really know where it comes from; it can register as something miraculous, or otherworldly. When we’re upset or choked up we can barely speak, let alone sing––yet when we feel full of life, we well up with emotion and need to sound it out.

In the mid-1970s, I was visiting my friend Arthur Lambert at his house on Fire Island. I met his friend David Hockney––I was swimming naked in the pool and looked up and saw the famous painter standing there at the edge. I was suddenly in one of his paintings, a faceless boy rendered graphic in a turquoise rectangle. Later that summer, Arthur and I were lying on a huge waterbed mattress in the sun. A giant sound came pouring out of the house––it made my ears ring and my heart burst.

I really didn’t know opera at all at that point, but this voice, this singing, this sound, was altogether something else––it touched me deep inside, got my spirit to soar, and I had no idea why. The music was The Art of Maria Callas, a stereo recording made late in her career. This LP introduced me to the music, language and emotion of opera––the sound conjuring feelings of time and place, both lost and uncharted, vast and yet familiar, like some kind of spirit guide, as if all my past lives were suddenly converging and clamoring for my attention.

I fell in love with opera. I painted and drew to Callas, her voice filling the room like an inevitable force of human nature. I was learning about art from an artist who was utterly committed and essential, as in essence.

Random marks of pigment unconsciously wiped onto one’s jeans speaks of a painter at work. One night, tripping alone in my apartment, I sat on the floor in front of a mirror and watched myself lip-synching to Callas singing an aria from Orphee et Eurydice. I completely mesmerized myself. In that moment, I saw that I could achieve this incredible visual illusion. It felt like I was breathing in the soul of another.

It was performance, it was playing a role. Color the self. Define who you can be. Paint became makeup and found its way onto my skin.

On went green fingernail polish, an homage to Sally Bowles. The color of strange, of sinister, the painted nails, normally the parameters of woman. Eyes––the black sockets of chronic fatigue, of silent screen beauty, of aggressive menace, a look to be registered from a distance; remnants still visible the day after, stains on the pillow. Hair––lightened or darkened, the look of the aftermath of an opened safety pin stuck into a wall outlet. And amazing how color to the lips became the real gender leap––the “O” of orifice, the stain of ripe fruit.

Skin–color–lines–contour. Painting this new canvas, my skin. Small hits of Black Beauties by day and nocturnal acid romps, oblivious to any peril to this passion. I was a conjurer, a magician, a siren. This creature stepped out of the canvas and onto the street. Dagmar, the love child of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis. Dagmar, angry and defiant, stale vestiges of polish and kohl left on during the daylight hours, working on hidden statements in my studio, venturing out again at night, pallet restored, smeared deliberately. Black eyes, teased out red hair, torn stockings and dangerous footwear, an embroidered Vietnam bomber jacket. An incendiary creature––raw and punk, socially annoying, balanced on the fence, vacillating between the gender divide, deliberately provoking response, observing reactions.

I am a man. I wasn’t really your typical transvestite. It was theater. I was exploring my female side, yeah, I was saying fuck you to parts of my upbringing, abandoning the code of what it is to be an American male, inventing my own version.   But it was also a way for me to sneak back on stage––because it wasn’t me on stage, it was a character.

I embraced Dagmar as I swallowed her whole, this being of the night, this living sculpture, a response to my hero. She was a rebel child, both inhabiting her mother and reacting against her. By the time I wrote and performed The Dagmar Onassis Story in 1984, the coke-sniffing punk Dagmar shared the stage with Dagmar as diva, mimicking her mother Maria. Ten years later, the more stately portrayal survived and appeared in concert at Carnegie Hall, invading her mother’s turf. She eventually made her mark on my arm––a tatoo with her name scrolled around a heart. For now though, this alter ego, this liberation and guise, wailed and roamed the empty halls, smokey bars and crowded streets of Alphabet City with so much more to say.

© John Kelly 2019/2001

  • Set Design by John Kelly