Interview: Kiwi story covers half century

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Simon Edwards - The Hutt News

An opera that tells the story of Hohepa Te Umuroa and his friendship with Hutt Valley early settlers Thomas "Quaker" Mason and his wife Jane has its world premiere next week.

Hohepa, a New Zealand International Festival of the Arts event, has been created by Pukerua Bay composer Jenny McLeod.

She describes the work as "by turns jubilant, anxious, spooky, hilarious, heart-rending, brutal, quirky, touching and tragic; this is a Kiwi story covering nearly a century and a half, in which truth is ever stranger and richer than fiction".

Hohepa, described in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography as more than six foot tall, "with a fine, large head and an incomplete moko on the left side of his face" was of Ngati Hau of Te Ati Haunui-a-Paparangi.

He lived in the Hutt Valley in the 1840s and over several years struck up a friendship with the Masons, living in the area we now know as Avalon.

McLeod says the first half of the story is about the Maori getting to know the Pakeha, "and something we have to learn about Maori is that they're all different people.

"Of course, that's the same with Pakeha . . . and a lot of them weren't very nice to the Maori in the end".

Tensions over the settlers' hunger for land intensify. Te Rangihaeata of Ngati Porou begins armed resistance to settlers in Wellington and Te Umuroa joined in the 1846 attack at Almon Boulcott's farm in the Hutt Valley.

Governor Grey arrests Te Rauparaha in July that year and keeps him captive without trial. A month later Te Umuroa and several other Wanganui Maori are also captured. Under the terms of martial law operating in the area, they should have been treated as prisoners of war.

But Grey chose to regard them as rebelling against the Queen's authority and after a dubious trial, without proper representation, Te Umuroa and the other Wanganui Maori are sent to a penal colony in Tasmania to serve out the rest of their lives.

McLeod says by "wonderful, miraculous coincidence" the Masons are in Hobart when the prisoners arrive. They kick up a fuss, as do local press concerned about the living conditions of transported prisoners, and instead they are taken to a more humane institution on Maria Island. But in 1847, Te Umuroa, who is only in his 20s, falls ill to tuberculosis and dies.

In the 1990s Matiu Mareikura (Ngati Rangi) led a mission to retrieve the buried bones of Te Umuroa and the others. He asked McLeod to write the history.

"He gave me clippings, photos and so on but I started to realise there were holes in the story," McLeod told Hutt News. "Like, who was the mysterious Pakeha who helped him. Of course that turned out to be Thomas Mason."

She shelved the idea of a book when another friend, anthropologist Karen Sinclair, included a detailed chapter on Te Umuroa in her book Prophetic Histories.

McLeod was busy writing He Iwi Kotahi Tatou for the national choral festival and not long after was approached by New Zealand Opera to see if she was interested in writing something for them.

"I thought maybe [Te Umuroa's story] could be told in an opera. There's a helluva a lot to fit in and I wouldn't want to miss key things out. I decided it could be an opera but it would have to move very fast!"

She took on the task of writing the libretto and music in the late 1990s.

Fast forward and the NBR New Zealand Opera is in final rehearsals for the premiere.

McLeod, whose extensive research is based on recorded, personal and oral histories, says Hohepa's life has all the drama an opera needs, "but in various little stories I discovered, there's often some humour as well".

Director Sara Brodie acknowledges McLeod's keenness. Nothing important is left out. "Jenny's writing doesn't linger at any point and is cinematic in its cuts to changes of space.

"A combination of elegant design, transformative costuming and performers changing the environment are my means towards a production of slick transitions," Brodie says.

It moves along at a fair clip, and with its New Zealand themes, kapa haka and other forms of Maori movement, it could be a great production for those experiencing opera for the first time.

"I think it would," McLeod agrees. "You won't have time to get bored."

One third of Hohepa is in te reo Maori, but for the entire production - including for the singing in English - subtitles will be displayed to the right and left of the stage.

"Lots of the time from the action on stage you get the idea what's going on but if people get lost they can look at the words."

As well as singing, McLeod has used rhythmic speaking, also used in Maori.

"We have a narrator, who will speak over background music, or does rhythmic speech over music. The various ways of treatment and texture all help with the pace of it."

A high-calibre cast, comprising almost entirely New Zealand talent, will bring Hohepa to life on stage. Returning from Britain to sing the title role is the NBR New Zealand Opera PricewaterhouseCoopers Dame Malvina Major Emerging Artist, Phillip Rhodes. Alongside him are fellow New Zealanders Jonathan Lemalu, Jenny Wollerman, Martin Snell, Deborah Wai Kapohe, Eddie Muliaumaseali'i and Robert Tucker. Another 10 singers take the remaining roles. The music is from the Vector Wellington Orchestra, conducted by Marc Taddei.

- Hohepa is at the Opera House, Wellington Thursday March 15, Saturday March 17, 7.30pm, Sunday March 18, 5pm. Tickets: $48 to $108. Phone 499 8343 or bookings@ nzopera.co.nz.

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