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Baritone Joshua Hopkins in Songs for Murdered Sisters film directed by James Niebuhr.

Houston Grand Opera

Five years have passed since Basil Borutski killed three of his ex-girlfriends in a rampage in Renfrew County, eastern Ontario. It was one of those cases that was most tragic in hindsight.

Before they were murdered, the three women lived the nightmare of Borutski’s pattern of violence. They had reported him to the police in the past, and when jail time and probationary weapons bans didn’t seem to stop him, they bought guns and panic buttons for their own protection.

Borutski’s triple homicide was an extreme example of domestic violence, in Canada and certainly in the rural Ontario county just west of Ottawa. While the case had a catalyzing effect on domestic-violence awareness, the families and friends of Anastasia Kuzyk, Carol Culleton, and Nathalie Warmerdam were still left to grieve.

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Warmerdam was the older sister of Joshua Hopkins, the Canadian baritone who put his own grief into his craft. Hopkins conceived of a song cycle about the loss of his sister and the larger tragedy of domestic violence against women; the moving end result is Songs for Murdered Sisters, with music by American composer Jake Heggie and poetry by Canada’s authority on feminist storytelling, Margaret Atwood.

The song cycle is co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera (HGO) and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, and its film premiere is currently available for free streaming through HGO Digital.

“I felt so numb after Nathalie’s murder,” says Hopkins of Songs for Murdered Sisters. “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.”

Composer Jake Heggie with Hopkins on the scoring stage of Skywalker Sound with an old photograph of his sister Nathalie Warmerdam and her two children Valerie and Adrian in the background.

Zoe Tarshis/Houston Grand Opera

What we get from this premiere presentation, directed by James Niebuhr, is simplicity and altruism. Hopkins walks into a nearly deserted performance space, with Heggie at the piano stage right and an empty chair centre stage; all are backed by a blank-slate screen, ready to mirror the songs’ emotional arc through saturated colours and light play.

The simplicity is a mirror of the songs themselves, which are almost old school in their leaning on the sound of Hopkins’s voice as the primary expressive tool. Heggie’s rolling, broken-sounding piano backdrop puts us in a world of confusion and grief, and Atwood’s poems unpack all that’s offensive about domestic violence: the entitlement of an abuser; the disregard for a woman’s life; and the panicked regret of her bereaved family. But above it all is the real beauty of Hopkins’ voice, the strong baritone paired with a throaty anxiety that seeps into these songs.

When an artist creates and performs a work as personal as Songs for Murdered Sisters, the danger is in making it entirely about their own experience. Yet there’s balance in how Hopkins performs these songs. We do see his grief, particularly where he tortures himself over the idea that he didn’t do enough to save her, or tried too little, too late. But because the text comes from Atwood – who personally knew two women killed by romantic partners – Songs for Murdered Sisters remains a work about women victims and the ways they are not protected from domestic violence.

About two-thirds of the way through the song cycle, Atwood’s poetry turns outward to consider not just the murder of Nathalie Warmerdam, but all the other women murdered over thousands of years, “killed by fearful men who wanted to be taller.” It’s easy to imagine Hopkins himself, after losing his sister, being smacked by the reality of how large this problem is, how common it is for women to die at the hands of domestic abusers. It’s a climactic moment in the piece, where a single tragedy becomes a gateway to something even worse.

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And maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but there’s something amazing about hearing a man – a low-voiced, strong-sounding man – wailing for these victims. It’s like watching a lightbulb go on for Hopkins and all the other men who might have ignored the danger that domestic violence has posed to women. It’s a little bit like hearing an unexpected “I’m sorry” when you didn’t think anyone else noticed that you were hurting.

Songs for Murdered Sisters is poised to have a firm spot in the contemporary art-song canon. It’s certainly particular to Hopkins, but the impressive vocal writing will soon attract more baritones, and the subject of domestic violence is by no means isolated or proprietary.

To watch this premiere performance is refreshing in a strange, guilty way, because it’s a reminder that there are more problems to fix in the world than the ubiquitous pandemic. It’s almost energizing to turn one’s attention to another problem, particularly one like domestic violence, where the fact that it’s so utterly common makes it inexplicably invisible.

HGO Digital’s presentation of Songs for Murdered Sisters is available until March 21. The stream aligns with an official album recording featuring Hopkins and Heggie, released on the Pentatone label on March 5, in time for International Women’s Day. According to the Royal Conservatory of Music website, a live performance at Koerner Hall is slated for April 17, 2021.

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