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Baritone Joshua Hopkins, foreground, on the scoring stage of Skywalker Sound, with an image of his sister Nathalie Warmerdam and her two children, Valerie and Adrian, behind.Jake Heggie/Houston Grand Opera

The Ottawa-based National Arts Centre has announced the world orchestral premiere of a suite of eight songs in memory of a horrific series of killings that took place seven years ago in Canada.

Songs for Murdered Sisters was written expressly for Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, who makes his Southam Hall solo debut in a work that conveys the tragedy of lives needlessly lost. The NAC Orchestra co-commission with poetic text by Canadian author Margaret Atwood and music by Jake Heggie is part of the NAC’s just-revealed 2022-23 season.

On the morning of September 22, 2015, in Renfrew County, Ont., one man brutally murdered three women in their separate homes. The violence devastated the rural Ottawa Valley community where opera singer Hopkins grew up. His sister, Nathalie Warmerdam, was one of the slain women.

“I felt so numb after Nathalie’s murder,” Hopkins told The Globe and Mail last year. “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.”

The orchestral presentations of Songs for Murdered Sisters happen at Southam Hall on Feb. 9 and 10, 2023. A piano/vocal version of the song cycle made its live performance premiere earlier this year at Rothko Chapel in Houston, presented by co-commissioner the Houston Grand Opera. A Songs for Murdered Sisters film premiered last year; an album was nominated for a Juno Award this year but lost to Emily D’Angelo’s Enargeia.

From Oct. 27 to 29, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet will perform The Handmaid’s Tale, accompanied by the NAC Orchestra.Daniel Crump/National Arts Centre

On one hand, the NAC’s new season represents stabilization for the performing arts centre. Productions and concerts previously postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic have been rescheduled. The original NAC premiere of Songs for Murdered Sisters, for example, has been postponed twice. The 2022-23 season also marks the return of subscription packages.

On the other hand, the NAC’s artistic leadership team is in transition mode. French Theatre artistic director Mani Soleymanlou introduces his inaugural season, while Jillian Keiley (artistic director of English Theatre) and Cathy Levy (since 2000, executive producer of NAC Dance) offer final programming slates that conclude their tenures.

One of the upcoming dance events also involves the author-poet Atwood. From Oct. 27 to 29, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet performs The Handmaid’s Tale, accompanied by the NAC Orchestra. Choreographed by Lila York, the ballet is steeped in the prophetic spirit and dystopic story of Atwood’s award-winning 1985 novel that was later adapted for an Emmy-winning American television series. The ballet was described by The Globe as “bland” but “eminently watchable” upon its Toronto premiere in 2013.

Newfoundland’s Keiley bids farewell after a decade at the English Theatre helm. Her curtain-closing season includes a two-part stage adaptation of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees, a sweeping novel that chronicles three generations of Cape Breton Island’s Piper family. Created in partnership with Vita Brevis Arts, Neptune Theatre, Grand Theatre and Canadian Stage, the adaptation by Hannah Moscovitch and Alisa Palmer premieres in Toronto in early 2023 before touring to London, Ont., Halifax and the NAC.

Other English Theatre highlights include The Breathing Hole by Colleen Murphy, with Siobhan Arnatsiaq-Murphy and Nattilingmiutut translation by Janet Tamalik McGrath. The co-production with NAC Indigenous Theatre explores history and the climate crisis with a story about a polar bear cub adopted by an Inuk grandmother.

On the French Theatre side, incoming artistic director Soleymanlou invited 40 performers with diverse identities from across French-speaking Canada to create Un. Deux. Trois, a choral show that runs from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1, before touring to theatres from Moncton to Vancouver.

Buffy Sainte-Marie will take part in a show that also features performances by yet-be-named musicians, on Sept. 16 at Southam Hall.Mark Zaleski/The Canadian Press

Pop music concerts of note include Starwalker: A Celebration of the Songs, Music and Life of Buffy Sainte-Marie. The Indigenous Canadian-American singer-songwriter takes part in a show that also features performances by yet-be-named musicians on Sept. 16 at Southam Hall. The indefatigable 81-year-old icon won the Polaris Music Prize in 2015 for her album Power in the Blood.

The NAC Orchestra season opens in September with the appearance of Montreal pianist Bruce Liu, who last year won top prize at the career-making International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. The young virtuoso performs Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in an upbeat concert program that also includes playful works by Richard Strauss and Canadian composer Dinuk Wijeratne.

Ticket information for the NAC’s 2022-23 season can be found at the performing arts centre’s website.

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