Chances are if you grew up in the Antrim Road area of Belfast during the Second World War you might well have spotted a rather unusual visitor in the neighbourhood.
The story of Sheila the Elephant has now entered into local lore in north Belfast along with the numerous other folk tales which permeate the area’s rich history. During the Belfast Blitz of 1941, she had been secretly kept at the home of one of the zoo’s female keepers, after many of the zoo’s other animals were put down over fears they might escape during an air raid.
But with the pachyderm’s exploits still within living memory for some, it will make one of the festival’s more unusual musical offerings all the more of a must-see.
The story forms the inspiration for a new work by Scottish Opera, The Elephant Angel, which follows the enduring friendship between a young elephant named Sheila and her keeper.
“A few years ago I was at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris,” explains Armagh man and composer Gareth Williams.
“I met a wonderful Belfast visual artist called Gail Ritchie, who showed me an old article from the Belfast Telegraph about the ‘elephant angel’. I remember thinking it was such a beautiful little story with this picture of an elephant in a back yard in Belfast and these two women drinking tea.”
It was when Gareth mentioned the story to Belfast-born novelist Bernard MacLaverty as a possible libretto for an opera, that another dimension to the story opened up. “I said, ‘have
you heard this story?’, and he wrote back to say that not only had he heard it but that he knew that elephant. He had also grown up in the area and met the elephant as a child; it was a story he knew well too, so we decided to write an opera about it.”
Finding the story was one thing, however, but bringing it alive on stage was quite another for the young musician, for whom this is his first project as composer-in-residence at Scottish Opera.
“I wanted to use as much of the company as I could musically,” he explains. “We have two main stage opera singers, alongside which we have a ‘connect’ group of singers, 18-21-year-olds whose voices are still growing and developing.”
Also taking part will be a chorus of local children, who will add their own unique elements to the show. The imaginative approach by MacLaverty — famed for novels such as Cal and Lamb — also adds another dimension to the work, with some rather unusual characters taking part.
“Bernard’s libretto has singing animals, including a polar bear, tiger and lion,” he says. “But the elephant didn’t sing or say a word, so we have designed a very beautiful puppet and a physical theatre person working it.”
There is also the challenge of making the tale substantial enough to fill out the timescale of a full operatic work.
“You could tell the story in three sentences and get the very essence,” says Gareth. “What you then explore is what you find interesting about that story and how it would affect the characters and in that sense it starts to become more of a fiction, but based very clearly on events.”