Inspired by a newspaper article about a family of gardeners tending war graves in the Middle East, the opera is set within a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, amongst the family which maintains the gardens in the cemetery, and it deals with issues of remembrance, tolerance, and brotherhood.
The way the family maintained the gardens in the cemetery against difficult odds and with graves of a variety of different religions provides a metaphor for the current tensions in the Middle East and in Joanna’s libretto the garden provides a further metaphor for the easing of tension and the creation of harmony and brotherhood
The Gardeners explores the tensions that might arise between three generations of the same family looking after war graves in a politically divided region. The graves belong to the Dead, who once invaded the land in which they lie. The Dead communicate with the Old Gardener, to the bewilderment of his family, who cannot hear them. The Gardener works with his father, trying to keep the peace, whereas his son, the Angry Young Man, resents the Dead and is on the cusp of being radicalised. His Mother and Grandmother try to resolve the divisions within their family. After the Gardener discovers that the graves have been vandalised, and suspects his son may be the culprit, the conflict between the Angry Young Man and his family escalates, culminating in the Old Gardener collapsing and dying. Filled with remorse, the Angry Young Man reflects on his actions. As he does so, he starts to hear the voices which had spoken to his grandfather: the voices of the Dead.