Irish National Opera 2018-19 Review: Least Like The Other, Searching For Rosemary Kennedy

An Innovative, Disturbing, Captivating & Tremendous Success For the INO

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Pat Redmond)

Irish National Opera’s world premiere of “Least Like the Other, Searching for Rosemary Kennedy” took place at Galway’s International Arts Festival this July, an amazing feat in itself, given that the company has only been in existence for 18 months, yet it was the innovative quality and sheer brilliance of the work that really impressed.

Five years in the making, composer Brian Irvine and librettist Netia Jones have created a real gem of a work, which anyone who was lucky enough to attend one of its performances will undoubtedly attest to.

Out of the Spotlight

Rosemary Kennedy was a member of the illustrious and colorful, Irish-American family, and sister of President J.F.Kennedy. Unlike the rest of the high-achieving Kennedy family, who lived their lives in the spotlight, Rosemary’s life was largely unknown, as it still is today. This was a deliberate decision taken by the family who saw that she was not like the others, and had to be kept away from the attentions of the world. Looking back at her life from the early years of the 21st century, the avoidable horrors she was to suffer seem the stuff of nightmares, which started before she was actually born.

As was the custom at the time, a midwife would only be paid if a mother gave birth whilst a doctor was present. In Rosemary’s case she was forcibly kept in the birth canal for two hours while her mother awaited the arrival of the doctor, depriving her of oxygen, which caused her a degree of brain damage. Her symptoms did not appear to be too severe, and today she would probably be classified as a child with learning difficulties. However, she was not able to compete with her siblings or satisfy her demanding parents. Using the language of the day, an intelligence test defined her as a “high-functioning moron.” For the Kennedy family she was something of an embarrassment, and they attempted to lower her profile and shield her from the gaze of the outside world, finding her a position as a teacher in a Montessori school.

As she grew older her moods became increasingly aggressive, and she was also attracting the attention of men. Her father, Joe Kennedy, on the advice of eminent medical practitioners, and without consulting the family, decided to correct her mood swings and head off the chances of a sexual scandal by arranging for her to have a lobotomy, as a result of which she had to be institutionalised. She was 23 years old at the time.

This was not, however, an opera about Rosemary Kennedy, at least not in the conventional sense. Rather than a biography of her life, or a documentary relating to her medical treatment, this was a work which focused on the processes and procedures which caroled many women into having a lobotomy on the say so of their fathers, husbands or other family members.

Rosemary is the vehicle through which Irvine and Jones explored and made evident this brutal and life-destroying system. This is not to say that Rose Kennedy was not given a distinct character or that she was sidelined, far from it, but we meet her within the processes which determined the tragic path her life was to take. Although the work does not have a neat linear narrative, each scene is carefully constructed so that it is easy to follow and brings coherence to the whole, whilst allowing the audience a degree of freedom to engage and interpret events in their own way.

One Singer

There are four performers: a narrator, two speaking roles and one singer. However, the roles are not structured in a traditional way, and a substantial amount of ambiguity and overlapping exists.

Naomi O’Connell playing the role of Rose Kennedy did so only in fragmented form, in that she was in character only in so far as she related to the system. There was no attempt to portray her as a fully fleshed out person, engaging with other aspects of her life; this was left to the other actors, and to the narrator, played by Aoife Spillane-Hinks, who reading from source material at the side of the stage provided background information and context. Moreover, O’Connell did not stay solely within a single character: during the intelligence test for instance, she played the part of the examiner, bellowing out the questions through a megaphone, providing the audience with powerful vision of Rose’s interpretation or memory of the event.

O’Connell’s performance was in every respect outstanding. Her acting was intelligently formed, emotionally honest and so finely detailed that she managed to capture even the smallest facial gesture, or movement which elevated her portrayal to the highest level. Her identification with the moment was complete. There was also an undeniable frisson to her acting, arising from a spontaneity which only someone fully immersed in the drama can successfully create. Having been subject to all sorts of emotional trials, Rose is presented at Court for the debutante’s ball. Along the back of the set actual video footage of the occasion is shown. Front of stage a dance starts, and Goddard and Freeman, the men responsible for her lobotomy, start to dance a charleston, and Rose joins them. A great idea, but what made the scene so successful was O’Connell’s almost unnoticeable slowness in coordinating her moves at the beginning of the dance, and the honest, almost naïve expression of joy on her face. Such attention to small detail characterized her whole performance.

Vocally, O’Connell was able to orient her singing to bring out Rose’s emotional struggles, which reflected her inner pain, suffering, and often loneliness, yet she was equally able to change course and present a more open and optimistic disposition, although unfortunately there were few such moments for Rose. Her mezzo is versatile and powerful with a penetrating edge. Her phrasing was subtly ordered, and she projected her words clearly, articulately and with purpose.

No Comforting Touches

The non-singing actors, Stephanie Dufresne and Ronan Leahy, were no less accomplished in their portrayals. They both performed various roles, but were generally there to inflict pressure upon Rose, and provide contextual information for the audience. Both displayed versatility and conviction. Leahy in the role of Dr. Goddard gives a lecture on the failings of the feeble-minded and why his new cure, the lobotomy, will fix everything. It was delivered so confidently, so full of certainty, so intellectually, so scientifically, against a background of celebratory music, which was tellingly presented with manic intensity.

Netia Jones played a pivotal role in this production. Firstly, she created the libretto, which was mainly a compilation of quotations from letters, lectures, and Rosemary Kennedy’s mother’s autobiography. It proved to be a successful approach, which allowed the story to be heard in the characters’ own words, and provided insight into the thinking behind the system which funneled Rose into having a lobotomy. Secondly, Jones also acted as director and designer.

She opted for a single set, which was bright, clinical and inhuman, everything was brutally efficient in appearance with no comforting touches to add calm: an example of the unthinking and amoral application of science, which appears to be alive and well in the 21st century, although with more attention paid to its marketing. She made excellent use of video footage – which she also produced – which were not used just for contextual purposes, but also to contrast illusion with reality, to illustrate certain technical aspects of how those diagnosed as feeble-minded were treated, and in a powerfully symbolic sequence, to the soft sounds of an accompanying piano, a swimmer in clear blue water, free and liberated; Rose was very good at swimming and it was something she enjoyed.

Irvine’s score was an eclectic mix that moved in tandem with the drama, although not mechanically so; at times it shaped the atmospheric coloring and promoted the drama, at other times it provided ironic comment; it paid close attention to Rose’s psychology, and successfully captured her fears, happiness, emptiness, frustration and anger. With such a serious and unsettling subject, Irvine nevertheless managed to introduce occasional moments of calm, happiness and even fun so that it never became monotonously one-paced, and allowed the audience’s emotional responses to rise and dissipate before entering into another harrowing scene.

The score was innovative, experimental and fluid. The orchestra of Irish National Opera consisted of 12 musicians under the direction of Fergus Sheil (Artistic Director), while three improvising musicians, which included turntables performed under the direction of Irvine. Added to this was pre-recorded pianos. They combined to create what was largely a frantic and fragmented work, but one that was in harmony with the libretto. It also had a complex, vibrant and energetic quality, in which an underlying wildness was occasionally allowed to take hold, forcing the listener towards emotional extremes.

At the end of the performance the audience feels for Rose, who is now alone, locked into her Isolation and pain, but it also provokes so many questions about Goddard and Freeman, about the Kennedy’s, about motives, about the other victims and about the things we are doing today, which to future generations, will appear equally cruel and barbaric.

The opera is a testament to the bravery and innovative approach of Irish National Opera. The company does not stick to the tried and tested, but instead embraces opera in all its forms. It would have been so easy to stay within the usual repertoire of “La Traviata,” “Tosca” and the like, and claim that all new companies must first build up their audience. Certainly, INO makes room for them, but it is clearly prepared to move beyond this narrow range.

“Least Like The Other” validates this approach, and has provided the company with an opera which, given the chance, will continue to gain plaudits. Surely, a performance in Boston would make a bit of a splash!


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