An opera of sympathy and fury
About halfway Less like the other, the music finally breaks. 2019 by Brian Irvine and Netia Jones INO the opera describes the life of Rosemary Kennedy, sister of the former we president, who was diagnosed with an intellectual disability, as soon as her tortuous delivery – the nurse pushed her head back into the birth canal to wait for the doctor because, if he was not there for the delivery, the text of the opera implies he would not be able to collect his $ 150 fee – being raised by his tyrannical mother and estranged father. Kennedy was finally lobotomized in 1941, at the age of 23, and institutionalized until his death in 2005.
The music break arrives, and what has been frantic and intense for much of the previous 35 minutes is left behind. The stage, until then lit in sterile white or sepia paper, is bathed in blue. The walls of the stage become the water of a swimming pool, paradoxically allowing the audience – and Rosemary – to breathe. We were told that as a girl she loved to swim. The music here is an excellent invocation of water, written for solo piano, the chords gently undulate. But the harmony is also fragile, reminding us that this respite is temporary. We read the synopsis. We know where it will end.
Irvine and Jones’ work premiered at the 2019 Galway International Festival of the Arts and returns with a tour of Dublin, Cork and Limerick. This is the first release of the work in its current form, with a recorded orchestra spread over 16 speakers, led (as are the performers on stage) by a pre-recorded video of Fergus Sheil. The lofty words in the program note, that it “would give the audience an experience of music as if they were inside the belly of the beast itself,” did little to inspire confidence, rather resembling to hype. But the execution, where it counts, was excellent, and from the first moments you forget that what you hear is not live. The musicians also strike above their weight, the fifteen performers hitting with the force of a full orchestra.
Apart from the swimming pool sequence, training is a key theme of the opera. Rosemary is always at the mercy of outside forces – usually her parents – in training to be a socialite, to be smarter, more moral, and slimmer. The whole work has the fragmentary structure of a nightmare, a hell of constant discipline. In the first half, we see two intense quizzes. In the first, general knowledge questions are asked by Kennedy’s mother, Rose. The questions are relentless, on a wide variety of confusing subjects – geography, history, literature, mathematics – and the answers don’t matter. They are ignored when the next question is asked. In the second, the answers are of paramount importance. The questions, now a variety of multiple choice puzzles, are equally relentless. We watch Rosemary, drowning in the constant stream of questioning, struggling to answer, sometimes picking up a megaphone just to be heard.
Irvine’s career is marked by her frequent collaborations with artists from other fields. Director and designer Jones brings theatrical work through and through, allowing a simple stage to become a dining room, a classroom, a medical examination room, a ballroom. The choice of scenes allows for an examination of Kennedy’s life and a critique of attitudes towards women, both in the past and today. (The diet she was put on, for example, honestly seemed healthier than some modern trends.)
The work is so theatrical that I have rarely found myself fully aware of the music, despite its frantic energy and volume. Even calmer moments, with the exception of the swimming pool, are often juxtaposed with music with jerky and unsettling energy. Mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell has always been at the heart of it all, skillfully handling the sometimes dizzying style changes and portraying Kennedy’s inner turmoil and outer placidity. On stage with her were actors Stephanie Dufresne and Ronan Leahy, both representing a variety of influences surrounding Kennedy – doctors, teachers, family; sometimes even Kennedy herself, other times reading descriptions of the medical procedures she underwent, while Aoife Spillane-Hinks read her dialogue often with eerie calm.
All of this contributes to the bubbling chaos of a powerful work, in which recorded music and action on stage are seamlessly integrated; where socio-political themes and individual life at the center are examined simultaneously, like opposite ends of the same telescope. It’s a critique of the world in which Kennedy lived, in which we still live, but is never voyeuristic. It is a work of sympathy and fury.
At the end of the performance, Rosemary Kennedy slowly takes the stage, almost like in a dream – although the music is manic chaos. She walks over to a drawer, reaches out, pulls out a photo and almost ritually rips it in half before getting angry, destroying everything she can as the stage lights flicker on and off. The ending, it seems, as she leaves the stage in the dark, but then the walls are bathed in the light of the water again, now with an artificial greenish-purplish hue, as if someone one had spilled oil on the film. Music from the previous pool scene, or something very similar, returns, now played on strings on the empty stage as we maybe just drift underwater, looking up at the sky. Maybe swim. Maybe drowning.
Less like the other continues at the O’Reilly Theater in Dublin from September 16-18, followed by Cork Opera House on September 22 and Lime Tree Theater in Limerick on the 25th. Visit www.irishnationalopera.ie.