Least Like the Other by Brian Irvine. Irish National Opera at Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House London to 19 Jan 2023 . 4**** Clare Colvin

The tragic fate of Rosemary Kennedy, younger sister to President John F. Kennedy and eldest daughter to Joe Kennedy Sr and his wife Rose, was obscured in secrecy for decades. A botched birth in September 1918, owing to the late arrival of the obstetrician, left the baby’s brain starved of oxygen, and she grew up to be defined as “intellectually disabled.” In 1941 when Rosemary was 23 her father, without the knowledge of his wife, commissioned a surgeon to perform the controversial operation of a lobotomy. The object was to protect the mental reputation of the Kennedy family as John F Kennedy launched into his political career that was to lead to the White House. Far from calming Rosemary’s aggressive moods, the operation reduced her to the mental age of a two year old.

In Brian Irvine’s disturbing and compulsive opera, created with Netia Jones as Director, Designer, Video Designer and Conductor, it’s clear that a child of Joe and Rose Kennedy had a heavy burden to bear if unable to keep up with her siblings. In her autobiography Rose Kennedy ruled that any child who didn’t compete would be left in a corner, and she tested her offspring weekly to bring them up to be morally, mentally and physically as perfect as possible. Added to which, her less than perfect daughter was taught by the nuns to be “a child of Mary”, that is, to practise the virtue of humility and agree to being humiliated.

The score is harsh, at times painful on the ears, amounting to a cacophony of sound, and the flashing lights seem designed to stress the eyes. The opera’s title refers to the bewildering succession of pictorial IQ tests to which Rosemary was subjected, with the question: “Which is least like the other?” In contrast, the gentle piano interlude to a background video of flowing water is a reminder of her love of swimming that might have saved her from being obliterated.

There is one singer only – the rising young soprano Amy Ni Fhearraigh, an alumna of the 2018/19 of the Irish National Opera Studio, who beautifully suggests the girl’s wounded innocence as a sacrificial victim to conformity. Others involved in the joint project are actors Ronan Leahy and Stephanie Dufresne, in a number of parts. The libretto takes in lines from texts, newspaper articles, interviews and letters connected to Rosemary’s life. It is a far from easy evening, but one that should be told.

Composer/Improvisers Conductor: Brian Irvine

Director, Designer, Video Designer: Netia Jones

Conductor: Fergus Sheil

Lighting Designer: Sinead Wallace

Sound Designer: David Sheppard

Choreographer: Muirne Bloomer

Voice-over Artist/Assistant Director: Aoiffe Spillane-Hinks

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