Water in the Desert: A Zayed Legacy

Water in the Desert: A Zayed Legacy: Core Company with ‘The Falcon’, Bariton Robert Gildon. Photo courtesy of Waleed Shah

Following the success of Beautiful World in late 2016, we were honoured to partner with the UAE Ministry of Tolerance on a second opera project in 2018, working once again with British Director, Karen Gillingham and her world class creative team – including two professional opera singers.

The new production, ‘Water in the Desert: A Zayed Legacy’ was presented in partnership with The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. and received a standing ovation for both performances in October 2018. Our post event news story is here

Commemorating the Year of Zayed, the opera was an unforgettable celebration of the late Sheikh Zayed’s remarkable environmental legacy and vision for the greening of the desert.

The creative team worked with over 80 school children to devise, create, rehearse and perform this original opera. The project was in two parts – an initial devising period which was held in June 2018, followed by rehearsals, staging and performance on 25th and 26th October 2018.

Director Karen Gillingham oversees devising

Part One: Devising: A long weekend of devising in June saw students work with the creative team to develop and evolve the storyline, music, choreography and design. Much of the power of this type of project comes from the fact that the young people craft the content. The ideas come from them and are then taken by the professional composer and librettist and finalised into a piece of contemporary opera.

The students involved were aged 11 and above and came largely from Cranleigh. However, we were delighted to have been able to include a number of talented dancers from BISAD and Brighton College Abu Dhabi, who joined us for both the devising and the performance elements. 

Director Karen Gillingham had this to say after the devising process came to a close: “The extraordinary insight, passion and dynamism of the students has been incredibly inspiring. We feel privileged to work with them and are leaving full of fresh ideas that have come directly from them.”

This process was informed and inspired with help from Lest We Forget, an innovative archival initiative that explores Emirati vernacular tangible and intangible culture through memory, reflection, research and creative expression. Lest We Forget’s work considers how and why essential indigenous traditions continue to be relevant to contemporary Emirati culture and identity. Operating with support from the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, Lest We Forget is a community-based initiative led by Creative Director, Dr Michele Bambling.

We also welcomed environmental expert, Tatiana Antonelli Abella, Founder & Managing Director of Goumbook, a leading Social Enterprise dedicated to raising awareness among the local community on sustainability and green living across the UAE and the Gulf region. Goumbook works to promote positive environmental action through active participation in specific projects, campaigns and activities. Its current initiatives include Give a Ghaf Tree Planting Programme, Drop It – Rethink Plastic and Drop It Youth.

The opera embraced music, drama, film, movement and design and included an Emirati Oud player among the musicians.

Cast on Stage at The Red Theatre at The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. Photo courtesy of Waleed Shah

Part Two: Rehearsals and Performances: Armed with inspiration, lots of artistic concepts, words and musical ideas, the composer, Hannah Conway, and librettist Peter Cant worked over the summer months to finalise the musical score and libretto. As soon as term started in September, Cranleigh’s Performing and Creative Arts Faculties commenced after school and weekend rehearsal sessions. By the time the Creative Team returned to Abu Dhabi in mid-October, students were ready for the final intense week of work to bring the piece to life. 

Studio rehearsals were in our own Auditorium and the final sessions were held in the performance venue, The Red Theater at The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. As always with this type of project, students grew as they moved through the process. They had to find a level of personal tenacity and team resolve not ordinarily required in day-to-day school life. Their ability to believe in themselves and each other was tested and there is no doubt, each and every person involved has walked away stronger, more confident and more resilient. Exactly the reasons why this kind of co-curricular activity is so important as part of a great, ‘whole child’ education.

Photo gallery courtesy of Waleed Shah 

The video below highlights key stages of the production phase and final performance:

Cross Curricular Initiative

Year 6 Pupils work with Year 2s to help them articulate what they know about water and Sheikh Zayed’s vision for a green desert

While the opera itself engaged around 80 children, the project’s associated cross-curricular programme (which ran throughout June 2018) involved over 800 children – three quarters of the school.

Using the environmental and heritage themes of the opera, teachers developed a series of fascinating challenges that engaged pupils from Year 2 and above. These ranged from making water gratitude cards for our seven- to nine-year-olds to developing designs for sustainable architecture using 3D CAD software in the Senior School. Pupils benefited from sessions with the creative team as well as opera devising partners – Lest We Forget and Goumbook – which helped to inform their work and ignite their interest.

In order to keep the theme alive and perpetuate learning and environmental messaging, further associated activities are in the pipeline including a Ghaf Tree seedling planting morning for FS2 to Year 2 children in November 2018 and a mature Ghaf Tree planting ceremony in the New Year.

Project Objectives

  • To celebrate the Year of Zayed and UAE heritage and culture in an innovative and memorable manner that can be shared with the wider community
  • To inspire and develop children across several curriculum areas through performance and visual arts
  • To support the evolution and development of UAE education

Key Values

  • Tolerance and Collaboration
  • Determination and Work Ethic
  • Sustainability and Collective Responsibility
  • Deep Respect for UAE Heritage and Culture

Devising the Story

  • Based on Sheikh Zayed’s vision for a green desert, his belief that water was the UAE’s most valuable resource as well as the environmental and conservation programmes he led and inspired.
  • Explore the fact that change and progress comes only from dedication, collaboration and hard work
  • Emphasise the role and responsibility of the UAE’s blended current and future generations to continue to work together to treasure, protect and give back to our shared home.
  • Work with experts in environmental issues and social history to join the devising process crossing the curriculum


Cranleigh Abu Dhabi students studying Dance, Drama, Music, Art and Design Technology, as well as those who are active members of performing and creative arts co-curricular programmes, were selected and invited to take part in this project. In addition to this, dancers from a number of other Abu Dhabi schools were invited to audition and we were delighted to welcome dance students from Brighton College Abu Dhabi and the British International School Abu Dhabi.

  • Core company: 40 students aged 11+
  • Primary element: 20 pupils aged 5 to 6 years
  • Dance Company: 30 students aged 11+
  • Designers: 10 students aged 11+

Creative Team