Rosemary Kennedy: Telling the story of a forgotten daughter

Composer Brian Irvine’s new opera focuses on JFK’s intellectually disabled sister

Joseph P. Kennedy and his wife Rosemary Kennedy pose with their nine children for this picture in 1938 at Bronxville. From left are, seated: Eunice, Jean, Edward (on lap of his father), Patricia, and Kathleen. Standing: Rosemary, Robert, John, Mrs Kennedy, and Joseph, Jr. Photograph: Boston Globe/AP Photo

"It started about five years ago," explains composer Brian Irvine. We're talking in a studio at Dance Ireland at the end of a day's rehearsal of his new opera, Least Like The Other: Searching for Rosemary Kennedy. "A friend of mine told me about Rosemary Kennedy, and had actually written a play about it. That was the start of investigating her life and all the events that happened around her."

It would all be very straightforward if he was talking about Rose Kennedy, mother of three great US politicians, John F Kennedy, Robert F Kennedy and Ted Kennedy. But he's not. The woman who inspired his opera is Rose's daughter, Rosemary, who was born in 1918 and died a natural death in 2005, and who was almost airbrushed out of the family history.

Irvine became totally immersed in his subject, and he created “a big repository of music” which he wrote “as an innate reaction to things. I had no great purpose. It was a kind of reflection on things. That repository included 10 orchestral pieces, about 20 or 30 other fragments of stuff. But I was not really sure what I was doing on any level.”

He talked to Fergus Sheil, who is now artistic director of Irish National Opera, but was then involved with Wide Open Opera and Opera Theatre Company. They discussed the possibility of using the material as the basis for an opera or other stage work.


I'd never heard of her before. Which is extraordinary. But I know a lot of people that haven't. And that's part of our story

Two years ago he met Netia Jones. He really hit it off with the award-winning director, designer and video artist, who works in opera and theatre and also creates staged concerts. The process that would lead to Least Like The Other was in train. It took on a life of its own.

But Rosemary Kennedy was a hidden figure. “I’d never heard of her before,” says Jones. “Which is extraordinary. But I know a lot of people that haven’t. And that’s part of our story.” On the one hand there’s a world-famous family “who were highly mediatised in every possible way”. This made Rosemary’s near invisibility all the more “intriguing and interesting”.

“I did think it would be great to work with Brian. I really enjoy his attitude to music-making”.

Irvine straddles the worlds of jazz and contemporary music, delights in working with musicians who improvise (there will be three in the opera), and has an infectious enthusiasm which extends to working with musically untrained community groups.

Brian Irvine

“I’ve done a lot of devised work,” says Jones, “exploring what opera can be and really trying to push it to the edges of possibility. I believe it’s just this incredible art form that can really be anything you ask of it. I’m very interested in following the slipstream, or coming from outside a traditional approach to things, so I’ve really appreciated that about Brian’s music. And also I’m very keen on things being eclectic, and finding sources from all kind of places, smashing together unlikely bedfellows.”

She describes herself as having been “very nervous about the story of Rosemary Kennedy, and as we’ve got together over the last two years, that has been a guiding light, that this is a very difficult story to broach. We were both very keen to do it very carefully.”

The shape of the work has gone through many permutations — she mentions oratorio, and a one-handed opera on the lines of Schoenberg’s Erwartung. In the end, “We found a kind of hybrid way of working that allows using a deal of archive material, even recorded material, using projections, actors, using the human voice, which is obviously the central point of any opera — you probably can’t make an opera without the human sung voice in there somewhere. I think the forces we are now dealing with allow us to investigate this story without needing it to be over-literalised, or made into a formal opera. It allows us to be wary of the subject matter itself.”

The forces involved are a mezzo-soprano, Naomi Louisa O'Connell, two actors, Stephanie Dufresne and Ronan Leahy, and a chamber orchestra conducted by Fergus Sheil, with the improvisers conducted by Irvine.

Medical misadventure

The facts of Rosemary Kennedy’s life are of the kind that no one would believe you if you made them up. And they cross so many lines of gender and rights issues, and male control, that it’s easy to see why Irvine and Jones are wary of sensationalism.

Rosemary Kennedy’s birth was complicated by medical misadventure which left her intellectually disabled. And later, when she was 23 and her behaviour had become problematic, her father Joe, without consulting her mother, had her lobotomised. There don’t appear to have many safeguards for vulnerable people, especially vulnerable women, in the US of the 1940s, any more than in the Ireland of the mid 20th century.

Lobotomy seems implausibly primitive from a 21st-century perspective and has long since been abandoned. Although Rosemary Kennedy’s procedure was carried out by the two leading men in the field, Walter Freeman and James Watts, it was not a success. She was left unable to care for herself, institutionalised, and, basically, regarded as a dark and embarrassing family secret.

Netia Jones

Archival material about her has been heavily redacted. The opera, says Jones, “works with found material and really we’ve just dealt with how to . . . ,” Irvine finishes her sentence, “piece it together.” They have left the material as fragments, not wanting to have a conclusion or a finished story, but to leave it, in Jones’s words, “as open-ended as possible”.

The two creators’ working relationship seems to have been very fluid, which Irvine says has been one of the wonderful aspects of it. No, Jones hasn’t written any of the music but, she says, “We intervene, we trample all over each other’s business all the time, because we’re quite experienced, we’re quite old. We are friends enough and confident enough to be very brutal.”

For Irvine, Rosemary Kennedy and her life “became a little bit of a fascination or an obsession or something. It was such a tortuous, difficult story. It reflected so many things about the Kennedys and their time and beyond. I was just swimming in this sea of Rosemary for five years. Which is a lovely way to start to do something, because there’s no agenda, it’s just a process of making and looking and sorting and seeing how it works.”

Although there are some pictures of Rosemary Kennedy looking, in Jones’s words, “unutterably beautiful as a debutante in London,” she still finds Rosemary “very elusive. It’s almost impossible, really, to know anything about her. And that’s why we’ve decided very clearly that we’re not representing her in this piece. We don’t enact her or embody her in any way. The singer is not Rosemary Kennedy but she is, occasionally, moments in Rosemary Kennedy’s life.”

Irvine has a more filled-out picture in his head. He sees her as “Stunningly beautiful. It was often said she was the most beautiful of the Kennedys, beautiful and poetic. She did have learning difficulties. It’s hard to say how much. But she wrote letters, she kept a diary, she became a Montessori teacher for a while, and she taught young children. Her favourite book was Winnie the Pooh and she could read that to the children.”

He has the sense of “a fairly normal, deeply loving young woman. Every letter that she wrote is so drenched in this want for her father to acknowledge her and love her. Every one of those letters is heart-breaking. It’s all about ‘I’m doing my best’ and ‘I hope this pleases you’. She would send reports about her weight, because weight was a huge thing in the Kennedy family, monitoring the weight of all the children. There’s so much correspondence where Joe and Rose are just talking about the weight of their children.”

Today, they agree, her fate would probably have been entirely difficult. She would be seen as having learning difficulties and behavioural difficulties. For the Kennedys it was “all about appearance and all about control”. And now, 14 years after her death, her future is to be immortalised in an opera.

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