Opera to help students follow 28th Maori battalion

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Young Ngapuhi leaders will relive the story of the 28th Battalion.
Young Ngapuhi leaders will relive the story of the 28th Battalion.

The epic story of the 28th Maori Battalion and the weaving together of Northland iwi and Italy will be told in a new form at an outdoor opera at the historic Te Waimate Mission House.

When students from the Whangarei-based Leadership Academy of A Company sing the wartime waiata their forebears learned in an Italy ravaged by World War II, or the older songs of their tipuna, their words will carry in the air to nearby burial grounds that embrace warriors from older and more modern times.

From the setting of a building steeped in Northland's colonial, missionary and Maori history, they will be heard from two marae urupa and the historic graveyard at the Waimate Mission House's neighbouring historic Church of St John the Baptist: the former where Maori men lie who experienced the Italian theatre of war; the latter where English lads, teenagers among them, who fought in the "Flagstaff Wars" lie among the people of the north.

The voices of young Ngapuhi men at Opera in the Garden at Te Waimate Mission Station next Saturday will be complemented by the soaring voices of Opera North, and guest singer Luke Bird, performing songs that relate to and pay tribute to the theme of the Maori Battalion's experience in Italy.

The Opera North programme includes Italian arias and well-known musical numbers that touch on love and family.

The unique fundraising opera in the mission station grounds is a collaboration of culture, goodwill and shared heritage between the Leadership Academy, New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT), which manages Te Waimate, and Opera North.

The Leadership Academy is raising funds to send a group of students to Italy in May, retracing the steps of the A Company, the Ngapuhi men of the magnificent 28th.

The Academy's founding purpose was to build young Maori leaders for the future through educational achievement as a living tribute to the revered 28 (Maori) Battalion. Decades ago those courageous men came together to fight for their country and for their right as Maori to full citizenship.

This year, the 70th commemoration of the battle of Monte Cassino where the 28th fought and lost many men, the Academy is sending 25 cadets and staff to Italy to stand in those famous footprints.

The group will visit Florence to renew relationships created in 2009 between that city and New Zealand, called the Shared Memories Project, which commemorates the role of the Battalion in the city's liberation.

The Academy will also be initiating a relationship with a local high school in Cassino, which it hopes will involve reciprocal visits in the future.

Academy spokesman Ken Tipene said it was the trip of a lifetime for the boys, who will learn basic Italian beforehand, and study the history of the battalion's role in Italy.

The cadets will be incorporating study of related literature and history as part of the trip.

The Academy's purpose is to prepare boys to "stand tall on their marae, and stand tall in the world", and the trip will fulfil both those aims, Mr Tipene said.

Te Waimate Mission manager Mita Harris said he was pleased the Academy had asked for support for the project. The A Company of the 28th Battalion was made up of Ngapuhi men, and it was appropriate that, although the NZHPT has its own fundraising programme in place and relies on community support, the Trust gets behind the plan to send the boys to Italy.

Mr Harris said the respected Maori leader, the late Sir James Henare, was the commander of the company at Cassino and had to live with the heavy losses of men there, as had many Ngapuhi whanau.

Saturday, March 15, from 3pm, at Te Waimate Mission Station, Te Ahu Ahu Road, Waimate North; tickets from i-SITE Paihia, i-SITE Whangarei, Te Manawa, The Hub, Town Basin; $30 adults, $15 children 17 and under; wine and food available for purchase, cash only. Rain venue is Turner Centre, Kerikeri, call (09) 405 9734 for information, or listen to More FM.

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE

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