A new operatic piece devised by composer Brian Irvine and video designer Netia Jones tells the story of Rosemary Kennedy, writes
Mention the name Rose Kennedy and you might assume that the Kennedy referred to is the matriarch of the political dynasty whose children included an American president, an attorney-general, a senator, and an ambassador to Ireland.
Plans to name a new bridge in Co Wexford after Rose Fitzgerald-Kennedy to reflect the strong ties of the area to the iconic American-Irish family have led to some rancorous debate at county council meetings in the south-east recently.
However, it is not the story of the mother but that of the daughter named after her who provides the inspiration for a new operatic piece devised by composer Brian Irvine and video designer, Netia Jones.
In Least Like The Other, the tragic events of the life of the eldest daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy are brought to stage in a new piece of experimental musical theatre that will premiere at Galway Arts Festival.
Rosemary Kennedy, the third-eldest Kennedy child, was born with mild cognitive disabilities in 1918, possibly due to delays during her birth when the obstetrician was late attending to his client. It was an unfortunate start but the misfortune was later compounded.
When she was 23 years old, her father Joe Kennedy, following medical advice, arranged a pre-frontallobotomy without consulting his wife. It had disastrous consequences on her quality of life.
The operation, now a byword for medical barbarism, involved making a surgical incision through the top of her head while the patient was awake.
The lobotomist, Neurologist Walter Freeman was eventually struck off but not before he had overseen more than 2,000 operations with little evidence of any benefit to his patients.
Confined to an institution, Rosemary spent the rest of her long life hidden away, a dark family secret, separated for decades from her siblings.
Only in recent years has her story come under sharper focus as the passage of time and the death of key figures has numbed some the sensitivities around such a sore subject.
When we speak by phone at the end of a busy day during the second week of rehearsals, Belfast native Brian Irvine describes how the germ of an idea for his newest theatrical venture began.
The idea started about five years ago in Derry. A friend of mine, Laurence Roman, introduced me to the story of Rosemary and, like most people, I was unaware of it.I was instantly gripped, intrigued, horrified, and fascinated in one fell swoop.
Irvine began a process of investigation, trawling the archives of the JF Kennedy Centre and gathering different texts from newspaper articles, books, and documentaries. “At the same time, I started on a journey of making these musical fragments as responses to things I was finding. I began to build a repository of these responses.”
Two years ago, Fergus Sheil, director of Irish National Opera introduced Irvine to Netia Jones, a multi-award winning director who specialises in incorporating video design into opera and theatre. Jones has worked in Ireland before on Beckett projects for The Happy Days Festival in Enniskillen.
There was a meeting of minds and the process of fashioning an operatic work around Irvine’s collection took off. Jones expands.
“By the time I met Brian, he had an extraordinary raft of musical material and information on the characters surrounding her in the story. My job was to corral all of this material and to pull a work of theatre from it.”
Jones is pivotal, acting as director, designer, and video designer on the projector, roles which she says are so intertwined that “one informs the other”.
Jones has built her career on engaging technology with live theatre productions.
“For me, video is just another very useful tool. It can express things that a physical set and costumes can’t. I believe that to work in live theatre and not really engage with the technologies that are surrounding us in the rest of our lives is missing a trick. Our modern visual vocabulary includes moving imagery, it is part of our visual aesthetic now.”
Having considered a number of permutations, Irvine and Jones have settled on the forces of a single soprano (Naomi Louisa O’Connell) and two actors (Stefanie Dufresne and Ronan Leahy) with a small orchestra that includes three improvisors with two conductors.
Archive film footage, sound recordings, and reportage which Jones describes as “a slightly unexpected mixture of sonic forces” will be layered on via video projections. “We are not fictionalising anything. Everything we are using is found material.,” he says.
“Quite early on, it became apparent that we didn’t want to pursue a finished work or a chamber opera of any traditional kind of description.
“The story is impossible to tell in that way and we wouldn’t want to. It had to be much more experimental, much more left field. The only way to broach it is to deal with it in fragments, in glances, in small shards of information because there isn’t a solid body of information.”
Jones is most emphatic about one aspect.
The wonderful thing about opera is that includes everything but I feel very strongly that it has to be the music that takes the lead. A lot of my work has concentrated on how to make the video projections feel live and to be able to follow a conductor or soloist.
Irvine, born in Belfast in the ’60s, spent his early childhood on the Shankill Rd.
"He credits hearing the iconic blues guitarist Rory Gallagher live at the Ulster Hall as a catalyst in setting him on the road to a musical career. “I was a teenager — it was my first live gig.”
His sonic youth includes stints in obscure rock and pop bands before getting into composition.
With a range of eclectic influences reflected in his work to date, it is hard to pigeonhole the composer anointed as Belfast’s first Music Laureate in 2016. His projects have drawn a diverse range of collaborators into his large-scale creations.
His most recent work for Dumbworld’s A Different Wolf, seen at this year’s Cork Midsummer Festival, brought a professional dance troupe together with a large community choir. He describes Least Like The Other as being “a hybrid combining contemporary music and improvisation.
“It is an extreme piece with all sorts of different angles. It is an examination of the world around Rosemary,” adding that as you dig further, you open the door on other aspects such as “definitions of intelligence and a patriarchal society. There is no great story, just slightly obtuse questions.”