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Remembering a Tragedy: Songs For Murdered Sisters at HGO

Composer Jake Heggie and baritone Joshua Hopkins on the scoring stage of Skywalker Sound with an image of Joshua’s sister Nathalie Warmerdam and her two children Valerie and Adrian (background).
Composer Jake Heggie and baritone Joshua Hopkins on the scoring stage of Skywalker Sound with an image of Joshua’s sister Nathalie Warmerdam and her two children Valerie and Adrian (background).
Photo by Zoe Tarshis
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Update 3-18-21: Because of strong response, Houston Grand Opera has extended the viewing of this performance through April 30.

On the morning of September 22, 2015, in a rural area of Ontario, Canada, a man went on a killing spree, murdering three former female partners in their separate residences. The tragedy hit close to home for Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins — one of the women was his sister.

As a way to commemorate all three women's deaths including that of his sister Nathalie Warmerdam, and to register his voice against gender-based violence, Hopkins proposed doing a song cycle on what had happened. The result which Houston Grand Opera is about to premiere:  Songs For Murdered Sisters which allows him to explore the rage, grief and anger generated by the killer and his victims' friends and relatives, he says. Leaders of Canada's National Arts Center Orchestra signed on from the beginning, commissioning the work.

When he returned home to Houston where he has lived for the last 17 years after being a member of the HGO Studio Artists which brought him down from Canada, Hopkins approached HGO's Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers who had offered help after news of his sister's death. "So I told him about this project. And he immediately signed on HGO to be co-commissioners of the project."

Through his contacts and friendships in the opera world he was able to interest some pretty big names in his project. First, well-known opera composer Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking, It's a Wonderful Life). And then, renowned author Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale) who wrote eight poems that Heggie set to music.

Five years in the making and originally designed as both a chamber piece with full orchestra and one for just voice and piano — meant to be performed live, the initial plans for September 2020 premieres were overturned by the arrival of COVID-19. The decision was made to film a performance with with Hopkins singing accompanied by Heggie on piano. That film version will premiere on HGO Digital this Friday.

Actually, Hopkins said they weren't at all sure Atwood would contribute. He and his wife knew Atwood was a fan of opera and symphonic music, frequently attending performances in Toronto. At one of those, while Hopkins was on stage on opening night, his wife spotted Atwood in the audience and they approached her later.

He also got to meet her at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in New York where they were both performing. "As it happened, Margaret was initially interested. She asked a few questions about the structure and for a few weeks we didn't know if she was going to commit to the project and then all of a sudden in early 2018 she wrote Jake and I an email with the completed poems in the email and said 'How about something like this?' Which was a complete shock to both of us."

Atwood has spoken and written about why this was important to her, Hopkins said. "The subject matter touched her deeply. She also knew two women she was close with that were murdered by their partners. So she sat down in one season to write these eight songs."

The emotions of anger and rage which are actually two songs of the cycle that Margaret wrote, anger actually in that song deals with the anger of the man who did the murdering — Basil [Borutski]. It's questioning why was Basil so angry. Why did he resort to such horrific lengths to seek revenge on these women. The rage part of it is my rage. My rage at the man who murdered my sister and the two women.

"And also the idea that men for some reason need to feel taller need to feel more powerful than the women that they either love or they are with or that they know in their lives. Why are men so angry is really the question that we need to be asking and addressing in society."

"The idea that I'm lost in this sea of grief and I have to make sense of this tragedy that has happened so close to home.," he said. "The opening lyrics of the song are 'Who was my sister/ is now an empty chair/ is no longer there.'"

As Hopkins remembers it, Borutski was not allowed to be within the vicinity of his sister’s home. "But the problem was in rural communities especially there; is funding lacking for staff to have the oversight that is needed to protect those women. That is really what failed my sister and those two women. The system failed them."

Even though Bortuski had been under court orders to attend anger management classes, no one followed up with him when he didn't go, Hopkins said.

Talking about assembling his creative team, Hopkins said: "I knew Jake all the way when I was back to when I was an artist with the Houston Grand Opera Studio when he was working on his opera The End of the Affair." Hopkins was an understudy for one of the lead roles.

At  the end of 2016 Jake was premiering with Houston Grand Opera It’s a Wonderful Life in which he wrote the role of Harry Bailey for Hopkins, the baritone said. "I knew Jake would be the perfect composer to write my sister’s story. I knew he would bring such beautiful music and melodies."

Heggie gave Hopkins a yes; he wanted to be involved. "We definitely wanted a woman’s voice and particularly a Canadian woman’s voice writing the words.," he said, adding that Heggie had inspired him to think big which is what led him to Atwood.

Sound recording was done last year at the Skywalker Sound Facility in Marin County north of San Francisco (filmmaker George Lucas' state-of-the-art sound facility) over three days.  And on November 1,  they filmed the cycle in a separate location in a one-day, 15-hour shoot directed by James Niebuhr at an abandoned train station. "So it's more like a music video."

Hopkins also hopes that any number of men will take the white ribbon pledge promising “never to commit, condone, or remain silent about all forms of gender-based violence.”

The filmed version of Songs For Murdered Sisters is scheduled to premiere Friday, February 19 and continue for 30 days. has been extended through April 30. Available via the Marquee TV website and its Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire apps.  For more information, visit houstongrndopera.org. Free.

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