Joyce Morgan - Donnybrook-Bridgetown Mail
Hobart, Maori-speaking Thomas volunteered to translate for the newly arrived prisoners, unaware that his former friend was among them.
''Mason was the first to visit these prisoners and he found they were his friends and neighbours. He didn't know until he got there,'' McLeod says.
Mason, a Quaker interested in prison reform, spoke up for Hohepa and the Maori prisoners, urging more lenient treatment. While in Hobart penitentiary, Hohepa was drawn by colonial artist John Skinner Prout. The portrait, in which Hohepa stands wrapped in a traditional cape with facial tattoos, is in the British Museum.
Eventually, instead of going to Port Arthur, Hohepa was transferred to Maria Island, where he later died and was buried. But in 1988 elders from Whanganui brought home his remains, amid much ceremony.
McLeod is expecting descendants of Hohepa and the Masons will attend the production.
The opera is one of the most ambitious commissions of Lissa Twomey's third and final festival.
Since crossing the ditch to Wellington, Twomey has produced a lively program of international and local works.
''There has been a tradition of opera in the festival but it's been more grand-scale European opera,'' she says.
Instead, Twomey broke the mould and commissioned a local composer to create an opera based on a local story.
Other local work in the program is already creating international interest, including Conch Theatre's Masi, a collaboration with British illusionist Paul Kieve, who was magic adviser to the Harry Potter films, and a Maori version of Troilus and Cressida. The latter production will transfer to London's Globe Theatre later this year as part of the cultural program for the Olympic Games.
''I'm proud of this year's program,'' Twomey says. ''The new New Zealand work has a context within the program. There's a real aesthetic. Hohepa is one of those.''
Internationally, British theatre company Kneehigh will venture into the murky woods of the unconscious with their retelling of a Brothers Grimm fairytale in The Wild Bride.
Belgian-based choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, whose production Babel was a hit of this year's Sydney Festival, will return to Wellington with his new work Tezuka, inspired by the father of Japanese manga.
''There's a few companies I've invited back,'' Twomey says. ''You do so much to introduce an artist or a company to an audience.''
Twomey, a former associate artistic director of the Sydney Festival, will return to the city later this year.
The New Zealand International Art Festival begins on Friday. Hohepa premiers on March 15.