Ahead of an Irish tour, mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O'Connell introduces Irish National Opera's Least Like The Other: Searching for Rosemary Kennedy, an acclaimed work of experimental music theatre tracing events in the life of Rosemary, eldest daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy, sister of JFK.

I have been looking forward to getting back in front of a live audience for quite some time. To bring Least Like The Other: Searching for Rosemary Kennedy to audiences this September will be a privilege, especially during this distressing time for the arts when so many working in this industry - myself included - are left in doubt of their future. We all want to make art and make it safely. So… let's talk precautions. For many, this might be the first evening out in a bigger group of people, and it’s important to feel reassurance from the outset that venues will be taking every possible measure to ensure the safety of those who attend - in this case: masked and distanced audiences, a pre-recorded orchestra, and a Covid-adapted staging.

Ronan Leahy, Naomi Louisa O'Connell and Stephanie Dufresne in
Irish National Opera's Least Like The Other, Searching for Rosemary Kennedy
(Pics: Pat Redmond)

As to the work itself: Rosemary Kennedy did not have an easy life, and this is not an "easy" piece to perform or to watch. The words I would use to describe it are vital, electrifying, cathartic, necessary. Beautiful moments exist within it, as do moments of immense stress and pain, reflected both in the staging and in Brian Irvine’s music. Our director Netia Jones said during rehearsals that we were "telling an untellable story," as we have only fragmented views of Rosemary and the highly edited archives of the family from which to draw our material. Rosemary is the inspiration for the piece. Yes, we are telling her story, but it goes beyond that, as this is also a story about many, many women being mistreated within a patriarchal system.

Rosemary was intellectually disabled as a result of being deprived of oxygen while held in the birth canal for two hours—the reason being that the doctor would not get paid unless he was in the room when the baby was delivered, so the midwife was told not to allow the birth to take place. The mother had to hold her legs together until the doctor arrived. Later in life Rosemary underwent a lobotomy on the operating table of Dr Freeman, as did some other 4,000 people between 1936-1967 - despite his having no formal surgical training. Should you wish to throw up some evening, watch one of Freeman’s promotional films of a lobotomy on YouTube.

Each scene portrays a time of high stress or some influence in Rosemary's life, along with a guiding narrative of two researchers looking through archives of information about her family and the time in which she lived. Though this piece focuses on Rosemary, I never embody her fully as a character—every moment is refracted in some way. A good metaphor for this process is to see Rosemary as a leaf in a river, but rather than play the leaf, we play the river - the systems in place around her that allowed this to happen.

What I feel is most rewarding in the piece is that it holds up a mirror to our own lives and reflects this horror story of the past into our society today. If you read the official literature of the time, they talk about the "menace of the feeble-minded," its control and "ultimate eradication from the American people." They thought they could breed it out. I would say to audiences to ask themselves afterwards: what about this story scares you the most, or touches you the most? What makes you the most angry? Then look at what’s happening in our world today, find those reflections, and talk about them. This is a piece of art that should inspire questions. I cannot wait to take it back to the stage.

Irish National Opera's Least Like The Other: Searching for Rosemary Kennedy tours to Dublin, Limerick and Cork this September - find out more here.