HOUSTON, Texas – February 9, 2021 – On the morning of September 22, 2015, in Renfrew County, Ontario, a single man went on a killing spree, brutally murdering three ex-partners in their separate homes. They were victims in a crime now recognized as one of the worst cases of domestic violence in Canadian history. The murders devastated the rural Ottawa Valley community where baritone Joshua Hopkins grew up – his sister, Nathalie Warmerdam, was one of these women.
Hopkins has since set out on a journey to use his voice to wake people up to the global epidemic of gender-based violence – and their part in it. His call to action was answered by two exceptional creators. Jake Heggie, hailed by the Wall Street Journal as “the world’s most popular 21st-century opera and art song composer,” agreed to write the music, and Margaret Atwood, the Booker Prize-winning author of more than 50 books of fiction and poetry, including The Handmaid’s Tale, wrote the searing words.
“I have known two women who were murdered, both by jealous former romantic partners, so the killing of Joshua’s sister resonated with me,” shares Atwood. “But I could not promise anything: with songs and poems, they either arrive or they don’t. I then wrote the sequence in one session. I made the ‘sisters’ plural because they are indeed – unhappily – very plural. Sisters, daughters, mothers. So many.”
“Margaret sent a perfect, complete set of 8 texts and asked, ‘How about something like this?’” recalls Heggie. “Josh and I were stunned and deeply moved. I am in complete awe of Margaret’s genius – and it was a great honor and privilege to explore every corner of her poems to shape this musical, emotional journey for Josh. The concept of the piece is something similar to Schubert’s epic Die Winterreise, with Josh as a wanderer. He walks through the world wondering how to make sense of this event, filled with grief and rage, on a quest for connection and transformation.”
The result is a set of 8 songs, collectively titled Songs for Murdered Sisters. Conceived as both a chamber piece for voice and piano, and as a fully orchestrated piece for voice and symphony orchestra, the work was co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra. Though the originally scheduled live premieres in Houston and Ottawa have been postponed due to COVID-19, Songs for Murdered Sisters will now be accessible to worldwide audiences through a digital album and an accompanying film.
The film version of Songs for Murdered Sisters, directed by James Niebuhr, will premiere with Houston Grand Opera on Friday, February 19, 2021. Accessible via the Marquee TVwebsite and its Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire apps, the film will stream for free in more than 20 countries for 30 days. The album, to be released on the Pentatone label with composer Jake Heggie at the piano, will be available for download on all major platforms on Friday, March 5, 2021, to align with International Women’s Day the following Monday.
Hopkins hopes that sharing this harrowing story through song will inspire other voices – of all genders – to take up the call in the future, providing hope and healing for countless families around the world who have been impacted by this global societal issue. More immediately, he intends to challenge other men to own their responsibility to end violence against women. Through a #WhiteRibbonSisters social media campaign, he aims to motivate 10,000 men to take the White Ribbon Pledge, promising “never to commit, condone, or remain silent about all forms of gender-based violence.”
“We thank Joshua for honoring the memory of his sister and all the sisters lost to gender-based violence,” said Humberto Carolo, Executive Director of White Ribbon and Co-Chair of the Global MenEngage Alliance. “We call on all men to join with us – together we can work toward a gender-equitable, safe, peaceful, and inclusive world.”
“I felt so numb after Nathalie’s murder,” admits Hopkins. “It was so shocking it was almost impossible to comprehend. But Margaret’s words and Jake’s music have opened a door, and stepping through it has allowed me to access all my complicated feelings surrounding Nathalie’s death. You don’t process grief in a linear fashion – any emotion can come up any time you’re experiencing an emotional influx. But meaning transforms grief into a more peaceful and hopeful experience. These songs have provided that meaning for me.”