We see so many images of war and fighting on the televisions in our living rooms daily that we can almost become acclimatised to shocking violence. Yet within living memory our main cities in Britain were a different world of fear, soldiers, bombs and destruction. In today’s world of sophisticated multimedia communication, for us in the audience and for the children taking part, this compelling true story told in one brilliant short hour brought home the reality of wartime in a unique, simple and moving way.

The children meet Sheila in Scottish Opera's The Elephant Angel by Gareth Williams and Bernard MacLa © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
The children meet Sheila in Scottish Opera's The Elephant Angel by Gareth Williams and Bernard MacLa
© Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

As well as putting on full-scale and reduced-size touring operas, Scottish Opera continues its pioneering education commitment, which it has recently honed into two main strands. For many years now, Scottish Opera has been visiting schools where the pupils are rehearsed and come together to put on an opera. More recently, the Scottish Opera Connect programme has gathered promising young instrumental players into a Connect Orchestra, and singers into a Connect Chorus.

For its 50th anniversary, Scottish Opera commissioned The Elephant Angel, an opera by composer in residence Gareth Williams with a libretto from acclaimed novelist Bernard MacLaverty. The project cleverly combines the various education strands in nine individual performances across Scotland and Northern Ireland, each using the talents of a different local school on the way. Two professional singers are joined by five Connect singers and seven musicians from Scottish Opera.

MacLaverty and Williams have collaborated together before, on Scottish Opera’s Five:15 project, where they produced the compelling and poignant tale of The King’s Conjecture. For material this time, they took the extraordinary story of Denise Weston, the first female keeper at Belfast Zoo, and the Elephant Angel. During the Blitz, she would walk Sheila the baby elephant from the zoo to her own house, where she was kept in the garage for the night, fed hay from the family farm and returned to the zoo the next day, sometimes stopping by the bread shop for stale buns.

On a simple and effective wooden painted scenery with the Belfast Zoo gate in the centre, set against a silhouette of the Belfast skyline, the action switched by turns from inside the zoo to the outside street. Connect singers took the roles of the superbly costumed grumpy zoo animals wearing head semi-masks: Connor Smith’s Lion, Christopher Honey’s Tiger, who matched his stripes to the bars of the cage, and Alison Reid’s Polar Bear. They all sang about being a long way from home, and the Belfast weather making the African animals shiver and the Polar Bear too hot. The Head Keeper arrived and told them to behave as Miss Austin, a new under-keeper was coming to help care for them. When Miss Austin named the baby elephant Shelia, the other animals fell about, simply beside themselves with laughter.

The scenery changed, and outside the zoo, local children sang street songs, played games and joshed about, but the well-known lively songs were given only a wistful musical accompaniment. So it was not so surprising that when one soldier arrived with a clipboard and another with a rifle, we were suddenly into the heartbreaking core of the story. On the last full moon, Glasgow was bombed, and next full moon it could be Belfast’s turn and the city would have enough trouble without wild animals roaming free. The lovely music continued but single thwacks on the snare drum told the story – the deeds done off-stage.

In a dramatic set piece, the air raid sirens went off, and strings of children were rushed across the stage to shelters. Sheila the Elephant escaped because Miss Austin had been walking her home to her house at night, and in real life, she lived for many years. In the opera, the zoo was re-stocked with new animals who sang about their grandparents not making it through the war, and Paul Keohone’s Head Keeper tells them to behave, as a group of children are visiting that day.

This was a charming fable for all, and there was some fine singing, particularly from Miranda Sinani as Miss Austin, soaring high above the children’s choruses. At this performance, very ably directed by Lissa Lorenzo, 30 pupils of Eastern Primary School from Broughty Ferry sang and acted their hearts out on and off the stage, while other pupils looked after the front of house, and handed out decorated elephant cut-outs on sticks to the audience. Choreography and movement were particularly strong, and puppeteer Lewis Sherlock in the elephant costume was remarkably elephant-like. In the pit, the lively, percussive seven-piece band (including a horn for elephant noises) was conducted by the composer.

This was the final performance in the run, but it is a project that could easily be repeated again with different singers and schools if funding is allowed. The Elephant Angel was a particularly haunting tale which the audience and performers, many of whom were experiencing opera for the first time, will take home with them. They will talk about the strange story and the humanity and kindness of the keeper, but will remember exactly how they felt when the animals were taken away. Television will never get close to packing the punch that live opera of this quality achieves.