Elephant's wartime tale leads to a show of force

9th November 2012 at 00:00
Jackie Cosh reports on a Scottish Opera production involving pupils from across the country on and off stage

As heroes go, Denise Austin's tale must be one of the most unusual. During the Second World War, the zookeeper at Belfast Zoo was particularly fond of Sheila the baby elephant. Worried that she would be distressed by the air raid sirens, she took her home every evening to spend the night in her back garden.

Scottish Opera composer-in-residence Gareth Williams and novelist Bernard MacLaverty have turned the true story of Miss Austin and Sheila into an opera called The Elephant Angel, touring nine communities in Scotland and Northern Ireland, with local schoolchildren joining the singers on stage, creating street scenes and making each performance unique.

"The very fact that it is set in wartime - the pupils can read about it, but to be part of it is absolutely wonderful. They will remember it for a long time," says Patricia Stewart, headteacher of St Hilary's Primary in East Kilbride.

At each school, the children have been involved in many aspects of the production. As well as performing on stage, they have worked on making props, preparing publicity and marketing, and setting up the venue on the night.

Scottish Opera spent quite a bit of time working with the children in the schools, getting to know them and working on ideas for music. Gareth Williams began visiting them six months before the show, trying out different ideas and getting an idea of how much to expect from the children.

"A story needs a certain amount of folk to tell it," says Mr Williams. "I think we had the right number to tell this story. It's quite a lot but I guess I didn't want to just create an education project for the sake of it. I really wanted kids in the piece. They make an amazing sound that grown-ups can't make. And to balance up against our percussion, piano, harp, our two main stage opera singers, as well as our five younger up-and-coming singers, we needed quite a few to make a decent sound, so I knew it was ambitious."

When the children come on to the stage at the East Kilbride Village Theatre, their performance is professional and natural. None of it looks like an add-on and they make several appearances. Re-creating a Belfast street of the time, they play on the streets and sing songs such as The Belle of Belfast City and In and Out of the Dusty Bluebells.

It is an intense couple of days with the children, admits director Lissa Lorenzo. "We have about four hours with them the day before the show and on the day of the show we have a couple of hours in the morning, getting them orientated and used to where they are meant to be.

"Then the orchestra and the rest of the cast join at 2pm and it's a case of making sure the kids get an opportunity to get used to what it's like singing with an orchestra, rather than just a piano.

"Then we do a little dress rehearsal, so we are focusing more on things that the kids are in. So it's a really intense couple of days for everyone - but the kids are dead excited by it and they really enjoy being part of it all, really enjoying opera, which is nice as well."

The success is partly due to the fact that the performance was in a theatre, as opposed to Scottish Opera coming to the school, says Mrs Stewart. "This is our third time working with Scottish Opera but the first time working in the theatre. In the past, Scottish Opera put the choreography together. This time it was completely different and the children chose some of the songs themselves.

"The fact that half were involved in the production side made it for everyone. They learned that it is not all about being on the stage. It is also very powerful behind the scenes," she says.

"So besides the war they learned about the world of work. It was good being shown about and it got them thinking about different jobs in the theatre. It was a very powerful experience. It all peaked when the animals were shot."

With the threat of bombing increasing, the authorities decided it was too much of a risk to have the animals in the zoo. A gunman came to shoot them all one night, but Sheila was safe in Miss Austin's back garden. She went on to live for another 25 years.

The story was hushed up by the head keeper, and did not become public until photographs of the elephant in Miss Austin's back garden appeared after her death in 1997.

"It's an ambitious project but everybody is pulling together because the piece is so beautiful and the story touches everyone's heart," says Ms Lorenzo. "I think that it has been hard work but really, really worthwhile. The children more than match the level that the professionals are working at in terms of enthusiasm."


On the night of Easter Tuesday, 15 April 1941, 200 German bombers attacked Belfast, killing almost 1,000 people and injuring many more. Approximately 100,000 people were left homeless.

To prevent more deaths and injuries, 33 animals at Belfast Zoo were shot by the Ministry of Public Security. The list included lions, bears and a tiger.

Sheila the elephant survived.

The Elephant Angel is still to be performed at the following:

- Eden Court, Inverness, Friday 9 November, 7.30pm

- Elgin Town Hall, Tuesday 13 November, 7pm

- Gardyne Theatre, Dundee, Tuesday 20 November, 7pm.

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