On the morning of September 22, 2015, in a rural community in the Ottawa Valley, Basil Borutski murdered three of his ex-partners in their homes.
Among his victims was Nathalie Warmerdam, older sister of Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins.
The opera singer was in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre when he learned of the tragedy. When the call came in, he was about to go onstage as Figaro for the orchestra rehearsal of The Barber of Seville.
“It was so harrowing to be able to comprehend how she was taken from this world,” he says. “It’s still impossible to really understand how it can be so instant and how life can be extinguished so instantly and so violently.”
The senseless tragedy of her death inspired him to use his voice as a “conduit” to honour her memory – and that of Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk, the two other women murdered that day. Songs for Murdered Sisters, an endeavour seven years in the making, comes to fruition on Thursday at the NAC, where Hopkins will take the solo role in the orchestral premiere.
Margaret Atwood has written eight evocative and sparse poems for the song cycle. They commemorate not just the three women, but also the thousands of others who have been killed by their partners.
Set to music by American composer Jake Heggie, the lyrics muse on themes of grief, memory, rage and forgiveness, and explore the devastating impact of such violence on victims’ friends, relatives and communities.
“These songs are not about somebody being murdered. They are about the loss felt by those left behind,” Atwood said. “It’s the absence.”
Her first poem reads: “Who was my sister is now an empty chair. … She is now emptiness. She is now air.”
Atwood, who is 83, says many people her age were acquainted with someone who has been killed. She herself knew two women robbed of their lives, including West Coast poet Patricia Lowther, who was murdered by her husband in 1975.
She agreed immediately to “take a crack at it” when Hopkins and Heggie approached her to write the lyrics, she told The Globe and Mail.
Not long afterward she sent them the completed poems, which also appear in her latest anthology, Dearly.
“She just surprised us with the songs out of the blue and we were just floored,” Hopkins recalls. “Reading them … I was weeping, and I couldn’t believe how much emotion was in the words that she chose to tell this emotional journey of grief and loss.”
He said her words had the effect of “breaking the crust of numbness … reaching down within that coldness, and actually bringing up many, many things that I had not yet dealt with emotionally about my sister’s murder.”
Writing the score, Heggie says, was also very emotional, “because … it’s not just a story. It’s a true story.”
“I always felt that shiver of recognition about the project that if we had the right forces at work, we could create something pretty extraordinary. When Margaret’s texts arrived … I actually started to hear what the music would sound like – very, very clear, immediately. "
Atwood, who has twice won the Booker Prize, has written for music before. She collaborated with American singer-songwriter Orville Stoeber for the album Hymns of the God’s Gardeners, with lyrics inspired by her novel The Year of the Flood. She also wrote the libretto for Pauline, a chamber opera set in 1913 about writer and performer Pauline Johnson, the daughter of a hereditary Mohawk chief and English mother, whose poetry drew from both cultures.
The author is planning to attend the premiere with Senator Yvonne Boyer, who is of Métis heritage, and who has spoken in Parliament about missing and murdered Indigenous women. It will not be the first time the author of The Handmaid’s Tale has heard the work performed.
During the pandemic, after lockdowns put live shows on hold, Hopkins turned up one sunny day and performed the entire song cycle (with a recorded piano backing track) in a “private recital” at Atwood’s home.
“He came and sang it to us in the back yard,” she says. “We were very impressed.”
The planned premiere of the orchestral version had to be cancelled twice, first owing to the pandemic and then again last year after truckers parked their big rigs steps from the NAC during the convoy protests last year.
The work has been staged with piano, but Heggie says adapting that score for a full orchestra gave him “another palette of colours” with which to make the work “just bolder and bigger.”
The composer, whose opera Dead Man Walking premieres during the Metropolitan Opera’s 2023-24 season this fall in New York, sees parallels in the structure of the piece with Schubert’s Winterreise, a song cycle of 24 works by German poet Wilhelm Muller that also tells a story.
Songs for Murdered Sisters, he says, speaks of a “spiritual journey of the human spirit and trying to make sense of a terrible act of violence, and enormous loss and how we carry on when something like that has happened.”
Alexander Shelley, the music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, describes the score as “painting with sound.”
For example, the audience will hear birdsong in the music when one of Atwood’s poems, entitled Bird Soul, puts forth the questions: “If birds had human souls what bird are you? A spring bird with a joyful song? A high flyer?”
“When the text refers to moments of childhood, you will hear … a sonic imagery that I think you would associate with a child,” the conductor says. “And when we are talking about being lost, the music becomes thin and transparent and lost. He is very direct in the palette that he uses.”
Shelley said Atwood’s poetry creates a narrative that is “sophisticated and complex” but “if read in isolation … stands beautifully on its own.”
When her words stop, so too does the orchestra, and the vocals conclude with a simple drawn-out hum.
“The music ends with just the voice holding a note. The orchestra just cuts out and Joshua is left there on his own,” Shelley says. “And it feels like closure.”
The plan is to tour Songs for Murdered Sisters internationally and then develop it as a fully staged work, something Hopkins says Atwood also envisaged when she was writing it.
He hopes for those in the audience who have experienced aggression at the hands of partner, or who know someone “who has experienced this kind of violence,” the song cycle will be a source of solace.
“Art,” he says, “has the power to heal.”