This student opera has an important message to share

The desert is a hostile place. All things considered, it seems extraordinary that thousands of years ago, man didn’t just survive here, but thrived and created a civilisation in the most barren and inhospitable of places.


Back then, water was one of the most precious resources for the nomads that roamed the desert. Travelling from one oasis to the next, it defined where they built cities, grew crops and raised families.

These days, we don’t have to go so far or work quite so hard to find water – and for that, we’re lucky. But while we may not give a second thought to turning on the tap, it’s these ancient beginnings that the students of Cranleigh Abu Dhabi are hoping to remind us of with their upcoming performance Water in the Desert: A Zayed Legacy.

Taking place on 25th and 26th October as part of NYUAD’s season of performing arts and to mark the Year of Zayed, the student-led opera builds on the founding father’s sustainable legacy and serves as a warning for what might happen if we don’t protect what we have.

“From an environmental perspective, our performance is about children who run out of water and then learn what their values are,” explains 17-year-old Cranleigh Abu Dhabi student Kenza Glendinning, who is taking on one of the opera’s main roles. “These children go back into the desert and they see what it was like to have an oasis, walk in the sand and to not have a tap you can turn on. One of the main messages of our piece is that when you’re reckless with something – like water – and suddenly there’s no more of it, that’s when you start appreciating what you had.

“We’ve come so far in terms of modernisation [here],” Kenza adds, thoughtfully. “That doesn’t mean we should be reckless and waste our resources. Hopefully this message will transcend [our performance] and we will all start valuing these precious resources more.”

For Joanne Lee, director of performing arts at Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, the creation is a testament to the power of ideas, and the power that young people have in shaping the world of the future.

“[This is] an incredible project that responds to the environment that we’re living in in a creative way,” she remarks. “What we’re building on is Sheikh Zayed’s vision, his concepts. The students were given a brief of exploring the ways in which they enjoy water consumption – they were talking about washing dishes, showering, playing with water bombs.

“But what if they had no water? When they started exploring that, they came back to question whether what they had considered as enjoyment at the beginning was now wasteful. A lot of the concepts we will see in the final performance were ideas that our students came up with and questioned themselves.”

One of the performance’s key driving forces is the parallel it draws between its young protagonists and their student counterparts, who together explore the desert, its water scarcity and the ecosystems it supports. That, says Joanne, is key to how they engage with the issue of sustainability on a deeper level.


“If we had provided the pupils with a script and told them that [this issue] was important, it wouldn’t be the same,” she notes. “It’s the fact that these ideas came from the pupils – it says to them, ‘What do you care about?’

“Within the world, there’s this concept that children aren’t really listened to,” Jo adds. “In this, everything has come from them and that’s what makes it so exciting.

“When people see this, we want them to reflect,” she pauses. “We want to educate people and make them question. We want them to see the next generation standing there on stage and saying, ‘Let’s not take this for granted’.”

Water in the Desert: A Zayed Legacy will be performed on 25th October at 8pm and 26th October at 4pm at The Red Theater at The Arts Center at NYUAD, Saadiyat Island. Tickets
are free, but prior reservation is required. Visit:

WORDS Camille Hogg

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