Long Live The Knife (1985)

Story, Choreography, Direction and Costume design by John Kelly
Music by Henry Purcell, Gaspare Spontini and Giuseppi Verdi
Props by Huck Snyder.
Premiere: The Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church, New York, February 1985.

WITH: John Kelly (Allesandro Modesti); Marleen Menard (Giovanna Modesti); Mark Phred aka Hapi Phace (Francis Bacon Screaming Cardinal); Larry Ree (The Maestro Castrato) and Stephen Tashjian aka Tabboo! (Sister Sebastian).


So much beautiful music has been written for the castrato voice. Being a countertenor is not the same voice exactly, but it is that same vocal register, which I can sing. Singing high––that was the impulse behind this piece. But more than that, I was fascinated by the brutal glamour of the whole phenomenon of the castrati.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Vatican chose a literal interpretation of St. Paul’s edict, “Let women be silent in the churches,” and turned a blind eye to the castration of prepubescent boys. Grown into adulthood as male sopranos, the good ones filled the demand for high voices in the exclusively male world of liturgical music and opera.

Their voices were supposedly the most incredible instruments, trumpet-like, huge, flexible, and high. But what did it take to get there? What if you were a boy chosen for castration? And what if you had no talent?

Long Life the Knife was one of my first longer pieces with a large cast. It was commissioned by Danspace in St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery, which is an amazing space to sing in. It inspired me to make something specific to the idea of the holy voice.

In my piece, a destitute mother brings her son Allesandro to the church to “go under the knife,” in the hope that he might be pulled out of bleak squalor and have a singing career as a castrato. Sister Sebastian whisks the unsuspecting boy offstage; the mother remains, silently reacting to the sonic altering of her son’s doomed manhood (via a buzz saw) and finding solace in progressively larger pairs of rosary beads. Luckily, the young Allesandro has talent, becomes a protégé of a renowned maestro and makes a successful debut. He ultimately finds himself under the professional and amorous tutelage of a powerful man of the cloth, here portrayed as one of the painter Francis Bacon’s screaming Cardinals, lip-synching the sound of foghorns.

© John Kelly 2019