The story of an Indigenous hero is about to become an epic choral work by Paul Stanhope.

When Paul Stanhope was asked by the Sydney Symphony to write a new large-scale work for orchestra and choir, he knew the one thing he needed was a good story. The scope of the commission was daunting: a work for choir and orchestra that would be emblematic of Australia, exploring Indigenous history and culture. But where to find inspiration? For Stanhope, it came from the radio. And, oddly enough, from the son of a former Australian prime minister.

“I heard Steve Hawke one day being interviewed by Margaret Throsby,” says Stanhope, “talking about this play he’d been working on, and I became fascinated by it.” The 2008 stage play by the author and playwright son of Bob Hawke was based on the historical figure of Jandamarra, who led a guerilla war against European settlers in West Australia’s Kimberley region. “I got in contact with Steve’s publisher, who put me in contact with him, and he really liked the idea of creating some sort of musical performance out of the story.”

Three years later, the dramatic cantata  Jandamarra: Sing for the Country (Ngalanybarra Muwayi) is being...