The details are harrowing. At 7:36 am, on 22 September 2015, Basil Borutski left his apartment in Palmer Rapids, Ontario wearing camouflage gear and carrying a sawn-off 12-gauge pump-action shotgun as if he was going hunting. He was not. Instead, he went on a brutal killing spree, shooting two ex-partners and strangling a third, in what is considered one of the worst cases of domestic violence in Canadian history. Perhaps surprisingly it took a jury 14 hours of deliberations over three days to find him guilty.

Joshua Hopkins on location for the Songs for Murdered Sisters film. Photo © Zoe Tarshis

One of the women, Nathalie Warmerdam, was the sister of Joshua Hopkins, an operatic baritone with a career that has taken him from Lyric Opera of Chicago to the Metropolitan Opera. Like many in the close-knit Ottawa Valley community, the event changed his life. “Renfrew County, where I grew up, is a large county so it is spread out, but it’s a county where a lot of people know each other and talk,” Hopkins reflects over Zoom from Palm Beach where he’s currently rehearsing COVID-safe outdoor productions of The Magic Flute and Pagliacci. “My sister lived on a very remote farm, but the sheer tragedy vibrated and resonated with the entire community. Although femicide has alarming rates in Canada, it’s extremely rare for something like this to happen, especially in one morning.”

Vigils were held, and Hopkins’ family celebrated his sister’s life by bringing together artists who had known her. The victims’ names were added to the Women’s Monument in nearby Petawawa, an art piece created in 2012 to remember, honour, and grieve local women murdered by men, a work Hopkins finds deeply touching, though, he admits ruefully, “it really should not exist”. While such a terrible event may sound an unlikely subject for a song cycle, that’s just what Hopkins and his creative partners Margaret Atwood and Jake Heggie have brought into being.

The Women’s Monument. Photo © EVA (End Violence Against Women – Renfrew County)

In the days immediately following the tragedy, Hopkins and his wife decided they wanted to create a musical work to honour his sister. “I was working at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa at the time, which is only an hour and a half away from where my sister was murdered,” he recalls. “When we approached the National Arts Centre Orchestra about having them commission a work that would tell my sister’s story, they came on board immediately.”

Hopkins is based these days in Houston – he trained at the Houston Grand Opera Studio – and it wasn’t long before they signed on as co-commissioners. “They had heard what had happened and Patrick Summers, the artistic director, said if there’s anything that we can do,” Hopkins explains.

As luck would have it, at the end of 2016, composer Jake Heggie had written a role for the young Canadian in his opera It’s a Wonderful Life. It seemed a chance too good to miss. “I love Jake’s music – he has a real affinity for fleshing out the emotions of a text with real sensitivity, so I felt I could trust him to tell this story musically,” Hopkins says.

The admiration was evidently mutual. “I am a big fan of Josh as a singer and artist,” says Heggie, “so the opportunity to collaborate was already on my wish list. But when Josh described what had happened and how he wanted to use songs to create a meaningful, transformative journey that could be helpful and healing to others, I was all in.”

Jake Heggie and Joshua Hopkins on the recording stage with an image of Joshua’s sister Nathalie Warmerdam and her two children. Photo © Zoe Tarshis

The two men knew at once that they wanted a woman’s perspective to be a part of the creative process, and since the co-commissioner was a Canadian orchestra, they wanted that woman to be Canadian. “I was singing Papageno with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and my wife, who was there opening night, spotted Margaret Atwood in the audience,” Hopkins recalls. “It made total sense that she would be the writer to bring the necessary sensitivity to the subject matter. She didn’t respond with an immediate yes, but it didn’t take her long.”

The Booker Prize-winning writer and author of The Handmaid’s Tale came back with some structural questions as well as floating the idea of a female singing voice within the piece, an idea subsequently dismissed. “I imagined a kind of Winterreise for Josh, looking for answers, meaning, connection in a rather bleak landscape,” Heggie explains. “I was always thinking of a cycle of several songs and I knew a sense of possibility and transformation would need to emerge.”

About a month later, both men were amazed when – without even knowing that Atwood had agreed to participate – the poems turned up out of the blue. “I was stunned,” says Heggie. “The cycle arrived – complete and perfect – in an email to me and Josh. She wrote: ‘How about something like this?’ I read through and sobbed.”

“I have known two women who were murdered, both by jealous former romantic partners, so the killing of Joshua’s sister resonated with me,” Atwood explains. “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.”

Screen still from the Songs for Murdered Sisters film directed by James Niebuhr

Hopkins was in New York when he received the email. “I remember closing the door to the bedroom and reading them in private and just weeping,” he recalls. “I was in awe. They seemed to express all of the emotions that were welling up within me but that I couldn’t put words to. She seemed to tap into something very deep inside of me.”

“We were both in tears, deeply moved and inspired,” Heggie agrees. “I could feel the music immediately, even though I didn’t know what it sounded like yet. I knew it was all there. The empty chair – the sense of absence, of something missing and irreplaceable – shook me. That left a lot of room for music to tell the story of what is missing. Looking for a way to fill that big void when someone is taken so suddenly and violently. And then the possibility brought about by the question that hangs in the penultimate song: ‘Or would you let him live? Would you instead forgive?’ Suddenly, a light breaks through the cracks.”

The eight songs, collectively entitled Songs for Murdered Sisters, examines the subject from different directions, from outside, from inside. Unexpectedly, it can even be playful at times, achieving that rare and delicate balance between fond reminiscence and an outpouring of grief and rage. Heggie, who admits that creating the music was immensely challenging, composed the songs either side of finishing his 2018 opera If I Were you. “It was emotionally precarious, of course, because I wanted the music to be sympathetic and emotional – but authentically so – not treacly or sentimental,” he explains. “It’s a tough journey and the music needed to reflect that as well as compel the singer and the listener forward.”

Director James Niebuhr and Hopkins review footage for Songs for Murdered Sisters. Photo © Tyler McPherron

As Hopkins shares, for perhaps the first time Heggie didn’t feel the need to change a single word of the text. In the resulting half hour work, composer and poet seem miraculously to have avoided the pitfalls associated with subject matter of this intensity. “There’s a very fine line to tread emotionally in a work like this,” Heggie considers. “Since it is so personal for Josh, I had to be careful that it didn’t become so specific that it shut everyone else out. It needed to be specific, but universal, because we all know love, loss and grief. I wanted to honour the source without getting locked down.”

Songs for Murdered Sisters was planned as both a chamber piece for voice and piano and as a fully orchestrated work with symphony orchestra, but with the premieres in Houston and Ottawa postponed due to COVID-19, the presenters have decided that a digital album and an accompanying film are the best ways to make the work accessible to a worldwide audience. “We filmed it in this amazing grand hall of an abandoned train station in Oakland, California with crumbling plaster on the walls,” says Hopkins. “Our director, James Niebuhr, used light and colour to be as much of a storyteller of the emotional journey as the text and the music.”

The film premiered on 19 February and is accessible for free for 30 days through Houston Grand Opera’s platform on the Marquee TV website as well as via apps like Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire.

Given the rawness of the subject matter, how has Hopkins coped in performance? “That’s yet to be seen,” he laughs. “Because recording the audio was essentially the first performance of it, we were able to take our time. There were certainly times that were emotional, but as a performer I need to communicate the text and what I’m feeling without getting to the point that it affects my performance and vocal production – which crying sure does. My job is to let the audience feel that catharsis.”

Screen still from the Songs for Murdered Sisters film directed by James Niebuhr

“What I did find freeing, though, was knowing that the soundtrack had already been recorded when we went to make the film. That meant I didn’t have to keep my emotions in check to keep my vocality free. That allowed me to go much deeper and more freely into the expression of the text.”

Another important element is Hopkins’ involvement in the #WhiteRibbonSisters social media campaign through which he aims to motivate 10,000 people to take the White Ribbon Pledge, promising never to commit, condone, or remain silent about gender-based violence. The film accordingly concludes with a call to action. “I wanted to bring awareness to the issue and try to motivate other men to start speaking out and owning their responsibility for violence against women around the world – for it is a worldwide epidemic,” he says. “It doesn’t get enough attention because it can be such a private issue, behind closed doors. The statistics are not reflective of the number of women in danger because many of them do not report it, because they fear for their lives at the hands of their partners.”

Rehearsals for Pagliacci have made Hopkins particularly aware of the operatic canon’s historical obsession with gender-based violence. “When we had our first run through, I really felt the intensity of it,” he says. In that light, Songs for Murdered Sisters seems more relevant than ever. “This song cycle has become such an important part of my life, and if this is how I can honour my sister, then I think that’s something very special.”

Heggie recognises that importance as well. “Our goal is to wake people up to rampant violence against women – especially men,” he says. “One can only ever hope that a listener feels affected and changed – awakened and connected in a way that perhaps they hadn’t been before.”

The Houston Grand Opera film of Songs for Murdered Sisters can be seen on Marquee TV until 30 April with the recording available on Pentatone from 5 March.

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