Music

Margaret Atwood and Jake Heggie have created a powerful song cycle that addresses violence against women

Songs for Murdered Sisters will be released on film (Feb.19) and as a digital album (March 5), performed by Joshua Hopkins, whose sister was slain in 2015.

Songs for Murdered Sisters will be released on film (Feb.19) and as a digital album (March 5)

Margaret Atwood attends a gala in Los Angeles in October 2018. (Getty Images for Hammer Museum)

On Sept. 22, 2015, a man in Renfrew County, Ont., murdered three women, his ex-partners, in one of the worst cases of domestic violence in Canadian history.

Nathalie Warmerdam was one of those women, and now her brother, baritone Joshua Hopkins, is using his voice to raise awareness of violence against women through Songs for Murdered Sisters, a new set of eight songs with words by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and music by American composer Jake Heggie.

"I have known two women who were murdered, both by jealous former romantic partners, so the killing of Joshua's sister resonated with me," said Atwood in a press release. "I made the 'sisters' plural because they are indeed — unhappily — very plural. Sisters, daughters, mothers. So many."

During their recording sessions, Jake Heggie (left) and Joshua Hopkins had a photograph of Joshua's sister Nathalie watching over them. (Supplied by Verismo Communications)

Heggie, who admits to being "in complete awe" of Atwood's writing, said, "it was a great honour and privilege to explore every corner of her poems to shape this musical, emotional journey for Josh."

The song cycle was conceived not only for voice and piano, but also in a fully orchestrated version. It was co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra. Originally scheduled premieres in Houston and Ottawa were postponed due to COVID-19, but Songs for Murdered Sisters will be made available through a digital album and an accompanying film.

The film, directed by James Niebuhr, will debut on Feb. 19 on Marquee TV and will stream for free for 30 days. The album will be released on March 5 via Pentatone Music.

"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," reflected Hopkins. "But meaning transforms grief into a more peaceful and hopeful experience. These songs have provided that meaning for me."

Watch the trailer, below:

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