Q & A: Creators Brian Irvine & Netia Jones on their Opera ‘Least Like The Other’

By Alan Neilson

In July 2019, Irish National Opera premiered “Least Like The Other” at the Galway International Arts Festival to a raft of fabulous reviews. 

The short opera, which lasts approximately 70 minutes, is an intensely disturbing work that explores the brutal and life-destroying system that led to Rose Kennedy having a lobotomy at the age of 23. She was born into the colorful and ambitious Kennedy family, but she was not like the others; she had what would today be classed as learning difficulties and deemed to be a social embarrassment. Her father, without consulting the family, therefore, decided to correct her defects through medical intervention.

Although Rose is at the center around which the drama revolves, the opera also shines a spotlight on the medical ethics of mid-20th century America and raises questions as to what is meant by intelligence, the value of personality and the power structures that allowed such procedures to take place.

In the run-up to the opera’s London premiere, OperaWire managed to catch up with its creators, Brian Irvine and Netia Jones, for an interview.

“Least Like The Other” will run for four performances at London’s Covent Garden, beginning on January 15.

OperaWire: What are your musical and theatrical backgrounds?

Brian Irvine: For as long as I can remember, I have always loved making stuff with noise and music – playing electric guitar in various garage, punk and electro bands in 1980s Northern Ireland and messing around with tape recorders. I realized quite quickly that music was a vast, wondrous and infinite playground in which making a piece for orchestra was like going on the swings or making a piece with my own band was like going on the slide and writing an opera was like going on the dodgems. As soon as I began to realize this, I knew that I wanted to know how to go on all the rides so that I could explore the whole park wildly, freely and without limits.

Netia Jones: I have probably been making theater all my life. Even as a young child, I would make crazy plays for anyone willing to watch. Becoming a theater director was a natural progression; I didn’t really decide to do it. I also have a musical background, so opera was something I was drawn to very early on. I staged a number of shows at university where I could experiment with staging, music design and technology, and then I moved directly into opera.

OW: How did your collaboration come about?

BI: I had been interested in Rosemary Kennedy’s story for some time and had been writing a lot of music in response to her story. Fergus Sheil from INO then introduced me to Netia and we hit it off straight away. That’s really when the whole project started to take shape.

NJ: Initially, I was not at all sure that an opera about Rosemary Kennedy was a good idea. But as we started working on it, it became clear that the themes and ideas contained in her story are vital and relevant.

OW: How easy was it to work with each other?

BI: It was a very productive collaboration. We created it together, and our personalities fit together very easily. There were no problems. It was a very easy relationship. My problem is that I create mountains of music, and Netia was good at rejecting what was unnecessary and suggesting changes.

NJ: It was easy and very fluent, and for a difficult subject, full of joy. I like to push against the boundaries of what an opera can be and to take a very experimental approach, and this was very easy with Brian. I often like using spoken text with music and have done it many times. It is something that some composers are uncomfortable with. But Brain was totally open to it. I think we both share the same flexible approach, which made the experience very creative and productive.

OW: What are the sources for your libretto?

NJ: It is not really a libretto in the traditional sense. Everything was taken from existing texts, such as documents and letters. The problem was, of course, that a lot of the information surrounding this subject is not available, so the text has a fragmented structure, which is reflected in the opera itself, which is not presented as a neat linear narrative.

OW: What was the aim of the music? Was it aimed, for example, at developing the drama or revealing Rose Kennedy’s psychological mindset?

BI: Actually, I didn’t have a specific aim when writing the music. I just reacted intuitively to the text. I just let it flow, and with Netia’s help in pruning the huge amount of music, I think we managed to create a dramatic score that explores in a very visceral and organic way the deep social and psychological aspects of her experiences.

I wrote the score for two different ensembles, which are layered on top of each other. One is a notated 12-piece ensemble conducted by Fergus, and the other is a small group of three free improvisers whom I direct. My small group is used flexibly so that there is an extempore sense to the music. It doesn’t change significantly from performance to performance but allows for alterations, disruptions and twists in the musical coloring.

OW: It is very different from a traditional opera. How did you go about structuring the piece?

NJ: When directing a traditional opera, although I will use video and other technologies, I am limited to the degree to which I can move away from the usual structures and formats. When I am involved in creating a new opera, however, I have far more freedom.

So, for “Least Like The Other,” there are three speaking roles, a narrator and two actors. Rosemary Kennedy is played by a singer, but the singer’s role isn’t fixed. She will sometimes step out of her role into another character and then back again within a matter of seconds. The narrative isn’t linear; we glance at episodes and significant moments in her life. We also use dance, archive footage, projected text and amplification. This all adds to the fragmented nature of the work, which is our aim.

OW: How easy was it to get what you wanted from the singers and actors?

NJ: We have been very fortunate with all the singers and actors. They have all shown real virtuosity in their complex roles. It has also been a wonderful process of collaboration in the rehearsal room. Live theatre is never fixed, and each performer brings a great deal to each performance.

OW: I recall that after seeing the performance in 2019, my thoughts focused more on Rose Kennedy’s father and the system that allowed her to be treated in this way and less on Rose Kennedy herself. Is this the reaction you wanted from audiences? 

NJ: Yes, it is exactly what we wanted. Rosemary Kennedy’s story is one that resonates with today’s audiences. Among other things, it is about the role of women, patriarchal structures, and ideas about intelligence and conformity. I think that the women in the audience can really relate to her situation. There is one incident when there is a sharp intake of breath from the women in the audience in response to what is happening on stage. It is very real to them.

So, although it is an opera about Rosemary Kennedy, it is not a biography. It is more of a documentary about the circumstances surrounding what happened to her.

OW: After the initial run of performances, did you make any changes or were you happy with how it stood?

BI: Following the first performance, we changed a few things, although nothing significant. In fact, after every performance we always make some alterations, but over time they have become fewer and fewer.

OW: The audience reception has been very positive. Were you surprised? 

BI: I was very happy with the audience reaction. I knew that we had created something experimental and strong, but it was so reassuring and lovely to see how people connected and engaged with it.

NJ: I am glad that the production has resonated at such a deep level with so many members of the audience.

BI: Unfortunately, after the initial performances in Galway, they were curtailed by the various COVID restrictions that followed, so we are delighted to be able to bring it to London. Hopefully, one day we can also take it to the USA.

OW: Do you have plans for any further collaborations? Perhaps another opera?

BI & NJ: Yes, we do, indeed. Another opera is in the planning stages, but it is too early to make a definitive announcement. Watch this space!


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