Opera tells tragic story of silencing a misfit Kennedy

Clare-born mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O'Connell. PHOTO: LAUREN DESBERG.

Arts Week with Judy Murphy

“Sometimes jobs come along that you simply have to do,” says Naomi Louisa O’Connell about the Irish National Opera’s production for this year’s Galway International Arts Festival.

Least Like the Other: Searching for Rosemary Kennedy, is a musical telling of the life of Rosemary, the older sister of John F Kennedy. And the story of this young woman who endured a lobotomy at the age of 23 for a mental condition caused by her botched birth in 1918, is not pretty. When Rosemary’s behaviour became increasingly erratic as a young adult her politically ambitious father, Joe, instigated this extreme treatment, without informing her mother. Rosemary was subsequently locked away.

“When I first looked at the score and did an initial bit of research about Rosemary, I thought, ‘Oh. Oh, wow. The only way this will work is if it becomes my entire life for the next two months’,” Naomi recalls of being offered the main role.

The Clare-born, New York-based mezzo-soprano knew she would have to “chain myself to the piano” to learn Brian Irvine’s score for the piece.

But even more, she realised she would “have to dive deep, deep, deep into this world of utter misogyny and abuse which Rosemary inhabited”.

Naomi Louisa wondered if she should even accept the role. But she did.

“This is an important story, and I knew that working on a role this challenging would make me a better musician and a better performer.”

Preparing for it was tough and involved watching footage of a lobotomy. Filmed by the 1930s creators of the controversial neurological procedure, Freeman and Watts, this showed nerve connections in the brain being severed and was “one of the worst nights,” Naomi Louisa recalls. “I came close to throwing up a couple of times.”

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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