Interview: Hohepa composer Jenny McLeod

by Fiona Rae / 14 March, 2012
McLeod's opera, debuting at the International Arts Festival, is set to make history, says Rod Biss.

Jenny McLeod’s new opera, Hohepa, could well be the longed-for musical success that will please both audiences and the operatic intelligentsia.

I’ll admit to being biased, having seen an early muster of the cast, then later a complete run-through of the piece with full cast and piano accompaniment late last year. I’ve been through the score at the piano, read the libretto and other early documents about the piece, had several meetings with the composer and talked to the director, Sara Brodie. From all this, I’ve sensed an excited awareness in the cast, design team and even management that this piece of theatre that tells a story from our history is likely to be historic itself.

It’s not that it’s the first New Zealand opera, or even the first to look back at ­history and explore the darker sides of our race relations. But this opera has been researched deeply and written with great sensitivity by McLeod and been given a theatrical interpretation by its director that brings coherency to an extraordinarily involved story. It has a line-up of New Zealand’s finest singers, including Phillip Rhodes in the name part, Jenny Wollerman, Jonathan Lemalu, and Martin Snell as Governor Sir George Grey. It has been backed generously by both New Zealand Opera and the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

The opera opens with a brief chorus – it is 1988 and the bones of Maori chief Hohepa Te Umuroa are being ­carried in procession to his final resting place at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River. In effect, we already know the resolution of the story, but what the opera then does is show the journey to this end; it fleshes out the characters, explains the whole shameful saga and concludes in a spirit of hope.

Te Tokotoko – Hohepa’s talking stick – played by Rawiri Paratene, acts as a narrator for the opera; he whisks us back to 1841, to the Hutt Valley with Maori in residence and Pakeha settlers about to arrive. We see just-married Thomas and Jane Mason on board ship and then settling into their new home. Initial friendship between the Masons and Maori is tested by a misunderstanding over the cutting down of a tree. Hohepa, as a recent convert to Christianity, believes he must love his enemy; but there are threats of real violence and the Masons decide to leave for Tasmania.

At the same time, Grey arrives from England, determined, in his own lordly, insensitive way, to sort out the increasing skirmishes. He forces Maori off their land, calling them “rebels”, kidnaps Te Rauparaha and after capturing Hohepa and his friend Te Kumete has them transported for life to Tasmania. Hohepa died in Tasmania and was buried there, but his grave was rediscovered last century and his remains were returned to his homeland.

The final chorus, taking us back to the opening, brings the opera to a beautiful close. The appeal of the music throughout lies in its rhythms and its forward momentum. It conveys a strong feel for the various characters; most vividly, one senses the sympathy of Mason and his wife, the strength of Hohepa and the unfeeling pomposity of Grey.

McLeod did not set out to make an opera. Because of the warm and trusting relationship she had with the Ngati Rangi people of Maungarongo, Ohakune, they asked her to write the history of Hohepa. At first, her involvement was simply to do research she hoped would end up as a book. But then – “it must’ve been well over 10 years ago” – she was approached by Alex Reedijk, then general director of New Zealand Opera, asking if she would like to write a chamber opera for NZO, and she realised Hohepa could be the ideal ­subject. She heard no more for some time, but started work on it, “not thinking at that stage too much about whether or not it would ever be performed”.

However, when Aidan Lang took over from Reedijk, he realised that if he could get the interest of the International Arts Festival, and perhaps the Auckland Arts Festival for the following year, this operatic project really could work. McLeod was at last sent her contract. It was for a somewhat more ambitious piece than the small-scale opera Reedijk had originally envisaged.

Did she consult director Brodie as she wrote the opera, I ask, imagining they were colleagues for some time and perhaps the opera was almost a joint project. “Not at all,” says McLeod. In fact, the first time they met was when Brodie presented her concepts for the production. McLeod was thrilled with what she saw, and relieved and encouraged by Brodie’s complete understanding of and sympathy for the whole project. “She came up with some changes which she thought were necessary, and made suggestions – all of them constructive and easy for me to accept.”

McLeod first attracted attention as a composer of potential while still a composition student with Douglas Lilburn and Frederick Page at Victoria University in the 1960s. A crucial direction was given to her creative life when in 1963 she heard a tape recording of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps at the Cambridge Summer School of Music. This filled her with determination to meet Messiaen and study in Paris with him. “He was the most profoundly important figure in my life … He changed my conception of music, setting me thinking in new ways about colour, resonance, pattern, mode, rhythm and the properties of organic forms.”

McLeod has always been able to turn herself into whatever sort of composer she wishes. While still at university, she wrote Little Symphony,  which unashamedly paid homage to Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. For Messiaen, she wrote music that fitted the European avant-garde mode.

She has explored pop, rock and jazz and written in those idioms. When she returned to New Zealand from Europe in 1968, she wrote Earth and Sky, a highly original setting of the Maori creation myth, with pop-influenced, gutsy, ­rhythmic music that used all the energy and ­sincerity of its 300 ­Masterton schoolchildren performers. It made news at the time, reaching out far beyond the usual audience for opera or classical-contemporary music.

For several decades, McLeod has been fascinated by a style of composition known as “tone clock theory”, which she sees as a logical way forward from Messiaen’s teaching. At its most basic, it is one way of making full use of the chromatic scale. Is it still important for her, I ask. It certainly is. “When composing Hohepa, I thought of the music entirely in tone clock terms and was agreeably surprised to discover that the music I had written was actually much more ‘tonally orientated’ than I had thought, although it’s often a highly coloured, chromatic kind of tonality.”

Not that the listener need worry too much about these technicalities. “It’s more important for them to enjoy what they are hearing rather than knowing how it is built. But I also believe that the listener can sense instinctively when there is an inbuilt structural coherence.”

Might Hohepa repeat the success of Earth and Sky? A more focused success, perhaps, as it is a very different sort of work aimed at a more focused audience. It will be an audience interested in our history, opera, and the way theatre can help us understand ourselves and our past. An audience to be part of, don’t you think?

HOHEPA, by Jenny McLeod, New Zealand Opera, Opera House, Wellington, March 15, 17 and 18, as part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival. Details and tickets here.
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