The Water Diviner’s Tale

Written by: William Yeoman

Climate change comes to the Proms courtesy of composer Rachel Portman and poet/novelist Owen Sheers…


The Prom on the afternoon of 27 August will see the world premiere of “The Water Diviner’s Tale”, an oratorio of sorts that deals with the issue of climate change, written by film composer Rachel Portman and poet/novelist Owen Sheers. The work was specially commissioned by the BBC, and features professional soloists, three massed youth choirs and a children’s ensemble, the members of which latter were selected as part of the BBC’s New Talent Scheme.

The Fijian-born, Oxford-educated ‘librettist’ Owen Sheers grew up in Wales and is the recipient of numerous awards for his poetry and prose; his first novel “Resistance” was published this year. He is currently working on two plays for BBC Radio 4. Sheers took time out from an extremely hectic schedule to talk about the inspiration behind “The Water Diviner’s Tale”.

“I think it’s important for everyone to involve themselves in the challenges climate change presents to us,” says Sheers. “I set the piece in a large public shelter of some kind, exactly because I believe there can be no ‘audience’ with this issue. Everyone contributes in some way and, through very small choices, everyone can contribute to solving the problem too.

“That said, any work of art motivated purely by an issue, or which exists to ‘tell’ a political message is bound to be a very boring piece of work. What interested me was the broadest brushstrokes of the situation, the very human dilemmas and situations that come about as a consequence of changes in our climate, and therefore in the places we live. The piece is for children, so it is semi-mythic, semi-allegorical and doesn’t attempt to involve itself with the details of the complicated science of climate change. What it does attempt to do, though, is tell the story of a community that has come together in the face of a shared threat who, over the period of the piece, come to realise, through story and narrative, that the same human attributes, traits and talents that helped bring about this situation can also be used to solve it.”

But how did the work originally come about, and how important was it for children to be involved? “Rachel had already worked with a producer called Fiona Morris on the opera of The Little Prince, in which they had auditioned for the children across the UK. They wanted to repeat this process and Rachel wanted to write something about climate change. That was when Fiona, who knew my poetry, approached me. From that point on, I developed the narrative and Rachel and I worked closely together, on and off for about a year. I would write the lyrics first, and then Rachel would respond, and then the to and fro of collaboration would continue until we were both happy.

“For me, it was crucial that children were involved. I’d never written for children before, and really wanted to try. Also, the subject being climate change, I felt it wouldn’t make any sense not to involve the generation who will not only have to face the most significant consequences of climate change, but who also present the best chance for enacting a shift in society’s behavior to solve it.”

Sheers had the performance venue in mind from the beginning. “It was the space of the Royal Albert Hall that really kick-started my thinking. I wanted to use this space in as inclusive a way as possible, with the performers coming from the audience at the piece’s opening. So, for the period of the piece, the entire Hall becomes a massive public shelter. Everyone inside is sheltering from a natural disaster outside. The children are lost, wandering throughout the auditorium, when the character of the Water Diviner calls them together.

“The Water Diviner is a man who travels the world listening to the stories of water. The children ask him to tell them these stories. He recognises the children’s willingness to listen as a last chance to change the ways of men, before it is too late. Through the stories of water, and goaded on by a goddess of weather prophecy, The Weather Forecaster, the Water Diviner brings the children to a point of determination, to not accept their fates and to make promises to live in such a way as to turn back global warming. They realise that the same attributes that have brought this situation about – human brilliance, adaptability, scientific technology, the power of business and the fact that when many people do small things at the same time, big changes happen – can all be harnessed to beat the challenges of climate change.”


  • The Water Diviner’s Tale is at the Proms on Monday 27 August at 3 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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