In 2008 Scottish Opera invited Gareth Williams and I to work together  on a 15 minute Opera as part of  their Five:15 strand. Self explanatory – five fifteen minute operas as an evening’s entertainment. Since that we have worked together on several occasions. For more information on Gareth Williams go to


‘The King’s Conjecture’ - Five:15 (15 minute Opera February 2008) Music by Gareth Williams.

This short opera is set in medieval Scotland at the court of King James IV – renowned for its learning and philosophising. It tells the story of a legendary experiment conducted by the king about the nature and source of language and how certain religious beliefs can turn out to be mere superstitions. But in this case religious gullibility and scientific thoughtlessness have sad human consequences both for the child subject of the experiment and his loving guardian.

‘The Letter’ - Five:15 (15 minute Opera May 2010) Music by Vitali Khodosh.

In the middle of Vassili Grossman’s huge novel ‘Life and Fate’ is the self-contained chapter 8. It tells the story of a mother, Anna Semyonovna, and  her attempt to communicate with her son, who is safely elsewhere, before she is taken by the Nazis from the ghetto and murdered alongside thousands of other Russian Jews. In the letter we see her life and anticipate her fate.  

‘Elephant Angel’ ( 50 minute Opera) Music by Gareth Williams.

It is 1941 and the Blitz is edging ever closer to Belfast. New keeper at the city’s zoo, Miss Austin, takes an immediate shine to shy baby elephant Sheila. And while she battles to win over the brusque Head Zookeeper, a firm friendship with Sheila forms. As fear of deadly bombing raids grow Miss Austin hatches a plan to walk Sheila home to her terraced house each night to look after her. Helped by local children who play and sing in the streets around the zoo, Miss Austin and Sheila make their secret journey, but can Miss Austin’s back yard really keep Sheila safe, or will they be discovered? Meanwhile, the Head Zookeeper has other worries on his mind, as government officials begin to question whether a zoo under threat of bombing should have any wild animals at all….

'Grace Notes' (20 minute Opera World Premiere March 2018)  Music by Samuel Bordoli

Catherine Anne McKenna is a young composer from the north of Ireland. She has shown enough talent to have been commissioned by the BBC for a  piece of music which will be broadcast world wide. She has recently had a baby which impeded the work she calls ‘Vernicle’. It’s a soundscape which has grown out of her life, out of the troubled place where she was born and brought up. When we first meet her she is in a state of nerves. Is her work good enough ? The musicians are in place, the red recording light goes on…


The Toronto Workshop

The aim of the Toronto workshop was to create nine 5 minute nano operas. Three writers, three composers. Three threes are nine. Operas. My three were as follows:

The Leaving

With composer Stephen Taylor.

Dramatises a conflict between a young religious brother and his superior. I took the situation from my first novel - although in the case of the opera the material is slightly changed so’s it can stand alone.

It is a power struggle, as 2 Religious Brothers walk together on a beach and discuss the nature of obedience. Stephen Taylor’s music mirrors and makes the tension.

The Telegram

With composer Gareth Williams

We began the LibLab talking about Medea . About drama and conflict. I remember reading this short story by the Scottish writer Ian Crichton Smith many years ago and thinking it might make a short film. But in a way it lends itself more to opera – as Gareth Williams music creates an inner emotional heart for what is a terrible and tense situation for 2 mothers whose sons are away at war in 1944. The mothers are watching a church elder walk through the village towards them carrying a telegram.

The Sermon

With composer John Harris

In a warm hall or church which of us has not felt ourselves dozing off at a sermon or a political speech? This situation is dramatised from a coming-of-age novel ‘The Anatomy School’ which I wrote some years ago. This was the last piece I wrote at the LibLab. Up until that point nobody had tried anything comic. Could opera make us laugh? This was a composer led fragment and John Harris had played me a chaconne which had become an ear-worm for him. It has a solemnity and beauty and it does remarkable things to the words I wrote on the page.