Least Like the Other review – the horror story of Rosemary Kennedy’s life | Opera

“Which is least like the other?” A projection flicks to drawings of three dogs and a cat. It’s an old-fashioned IQ test, and the frenzy of Brian Irvine’s music gives us an inkling of the confusion of Rosemary Kennedy, grasping at the questions as they flash by.

Rosemary, sister of John, Robert and Ted, is the subject of this powerful 75-minute work from Irvine and the director and designer Netia Jones, first staged in Galway in 2019 and brought to London in another welcome visit from Irish National Opera. The odd one out in the starry Kennedy family, she was all but airbrushed from its history. A botched birth left her with learning difficulties; in 1941, aged 23, she was lobotomised at her father’s behest. The operation left her incapacitated and institutionalised for the rest of her long life, a victim of the calamitous othering of people like her, women especially, and the hubris of those who claimed to be able to “cure” them.

These men – they are all men – are portrayed by the actor Ronan Leahy, speaking upbeat, talkshow-host-style American. Leahy and Stephanie Dufresne take on the peripheral roles in a series of snapshots from Rosemary’s life, and seem to portray Irvine and Jones, too, reading often verbatim from old letters and reports, piecing things together. Aoife Spillane-Hinks, the assistant director, also reads into a microphone from the side of the stage, in a blurring of roles that reinforces the idea that the performance is as much a shared research project as a piece of art.

The sole singer is Amy Ní Fhearraigh, whose voice gleams, capturing first the brittleness of Rosemary’s mother, then Rosemary’s mix of megawatt smile and trusting innocence. Irvine’s music, with the dozen or so players and their conductor Fergus Sheil in a studio-style box to one side, is part improvised, part pre-recorded and frequently unsettling, both in its noisy anger and in the way it changes subtly from something that’s present to something disembodied. A striking episode comes when the noisiness subsides into a tranquil piano solo and the video shows light playing on a swimming pool. “Of course, she loved to swim,” an earlier extract had told us. It’s a brief moment of fulfilment amid the horror of Rosemary’s story. This piece sets out to make us angry, and it succeeds.

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