SFOpera - ‘This Is Not a Story:’ Baritone Joshua Hopkins on Creating ‘Songs for Murdered Sisters’

‘This Is Not a Story:’ Baritone Joshua Hopkins on Creating ‘Songs for Murdered Sisters’

The drip of broken pipes echoes in the empty hall. Plaster peels from the wall. And from down a marble staircase, yellowed from disuse, a man appears, dressed all in black.

He walks into the long shadows of Oakland’s 16th Street Station, a decaying Beaux-Arts thoroughfare, when his progress is stopped. In front of him sits what appears to be an empty chair. But for the man, baritone Joshua Hopkins, it symbolizes so much more. "Who was my sister?" Hopkins starts to sing in short, fractured lines: "Is now an empty chair. Is no longer there. She is now emptiness. She is now air."

The words he sings come from Booker Prize-winning writer Margaret Atwood. The music, from composer Jake Heggie. But the story? The story is Hopkins's. It is his and the story of thousands of families who lose loved ones to domestic and gender-based violence.

Composed of eight parts, Songs for Murdered Sisters tells of a survivor's grief. Its narrator retreats into anger, fantasy, and memory to cope. Early on, he imagines his sister as the heroine in a fairy tale, someone he can save, someone whose foes he can defeat. But then he stops. "This is not a story," he sings. "Not that kind of story."

Released for free as a limited-time film and available now for download, Songs for Murdered Sisters was inspired by the 2015 killing of Hopkins's own sister, Nathalie Warmerdam. Her death was part of a spree that left three people dead in what's considered one of the worst cases of violence against women in Canadian history.

Their murderers were the same man, a former romantic partner of each one: Basil Borutski. He was sentenced to life in prison, with no opportunity for parole for 70 years.

Hopkins has struggled with the grief. Six years later, he grasps at flashes of memory, trying to recall the big sister who was taken from him. "Putting Songs for Murdered Sisters together has helped with my grieving. Definitely it's helped. It's helped me process the event, and it's helped me to find meaning in something that is arguably senseless," he told San Francisco Opera in a recent interview.

Just as the speaker in Songs for Murdered Sisters draws on his memories to confront the violence he's experienced, Hopkins too has had to look back in his efforts to create the song cycle.

But it's been tough. Eleven years separated him from his sister. He doesn't have many memories from their childhood together. "It feels like a dream to me, in terms of my life spent with her," he says. By the time he was 8 years old, she had already left the house.

Hopkins and Warmerdam grew up in a house full of music, full of art, in Canada's Ottawa Valley region. His parents played in a swing band—their father played trombone, their mother saxophone, and percussion—on top of running a local theater. "They acted, they sang, they built sets, they stage managed, they directed. My dad even wrote a few plays and musicals that were then put on in the community," Hopkins explains. And naturally, their children were in on the action. Warmerdam played the flute. When Hopkins was old enough, he would follow in her footsteps, helping their parents to run the sound board or the lights backstage.

Hopkins credits that early exposure to the arts with building his aptitude for music. "When I was a really, really young kid, I would just take my toys and play in the background and be by myself and be very happy to do that," he says. "But in the meantime, in my ear, I would always hear this live music being rehearsed and worked on and performed."

His mother had him first learn the keyboard—"I hated every minute of it, but of course, now I'm so thankful"—and then came the clarinet. But it was only around age 12 that he started to discover his voice.

Hopkins had a knack for mimicking voices. And the popularity of big-budget musicals like The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables was at its height. Hopkins would listen to Irish tenor Colm Wilkinson singing the lead roles in both musicals, and he would imitate his accent—slowly realizing he could hit the same notes too.

But singing was Hopkins's secret for a long time. Not even his parents knew. "If I was at a rehearsal but not needed at the rehearsal, I would find like a stairwell in the building somewhere far away. And I would just belt out ‘Bring Him Home' or ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables' or ‘Stars' or whatever and just sing."

His father also worked as a teacher at Hopkins's high school, and Hopkins says the first time his father heard him sing was when he was asked to perform at a school awards ceremony.

From then on, the cat was out of the bag. Hopkins was cast in musicals like Oklahoma!. He traveled from his home in Petawawa to a community called Deep River to audition for Haydn's Creation. He didn't even know what an oratorio was at the time. But it was his start on a path that would lead him to opera.

His sister Warmerdam couldn't have been more proud. By the time Hopkins left for the opera program at McGill University, she was already a mother: Hopkins would be an uncle twice over. She had a great love for nature and science. When she eventually moved back to the Ottawa Valley, she tried her hand at raising chickens and pigs.

"I heard through other people that she would always share with her friends what I was up to, around the world singing," Hopkins says. "I remember she made a big point of coming to my graduation at university. She took the train up from Toronto. She wanted to be a part of that. It was a big, big day. I think she was more into it than I was, actually."

In recent years, Hopkins has gone back to visit the places where they were raised. In the city of Pembroke, he sat by the river at the end of the street where they grew up and let the feelings wash over him.

His mind wandered through the halls of their old house, with their bedrooms on the top floor side by side. He remembered the emptiness of her room when she left. An emptiness, a loss, that has only grown thanks to an act of violence. Hopkins was in Ottawa with his wife, fellow performer Zoe Tarshis, when he first learned the news. It was September 22, 2015. Rehearsals for Gioachino Rossini's The Barber of Seville were underway, with Hopkins in the lead role.

"I didn't hear the news until probably four or five in the afternoon that day when my dad's wife called me and just basically said, ‘Are you sitting down?'" Hopkins had no idea what she was about to say. "I thought it was going to be good news or something."

At first, the news of Warmerdam's murder didn't make sense to him. His mind couldn't grasp that she was gone. "I didn't understand. I said, ‘Well, is she okay? Was she taken to the hospital? What's her status?'" It was impossible to imagine she was dead.

Hopkins was hours away from his first onstage rehearsal. It didn't even cross his mind to stay home, cancel the rehearsal. "The world was spinning, walking across the bridge to the [National] Arts Centre that goes across the Rideau Canal with my wife," Hopkins says. "I just felt like I was going through the motions of: I'm supposed to go to rehearsal, so I will go to rehearsal. That I remember distinctly. Just walking across the bridge to the Arts Centre, with my wife and my head reeling from feeling helpless and not knowing what to do. Because at that point, there really is nothing to do."

In between performances during that production of The Barber of Seville, Hopkins would drive home to grieve with his family. He feels lucky the production was close by. He could be there for his family. His nephew had been at home at the time of Warmerdam's murder. He had heard the screams. He had heard the gunshot. He had heard his mother's last words, urging him to run.

But at the same time, The Barber of Seville offered Hopkins an escape. "If anything, it was a welcome distraction from reality—to step into the world of Rossini and to embody Figaro. You know, Figaro doesn't have murdered sisters in his life."

It was during that time in Ottawa that the germ of an idea took hold. Hopkins had sang at a "celebration of life" tribute for his sister. He and his wife started talking about maybe going a step further—and creating a full-scale musical project to honor the memory of Warmerdam and the two other women who had died that day. That idea would become Songs for Murdered Sisters.

Hopkins and Tarshis first met with Daphne Burt, the artistic planning manager for the National Art Centre Orchestra, to talk it over. Then the Houston Grand Opera came on board as a co-commissioner. Jake Heggie—who wrote the role of Harry Bailey in the opera It's a Wonderful Life for Hopkins—quickly signed on. And then came a surprise.

The Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood had been a dream candidate to write the lyrics for the project. She had heard Hopkins's story and had lived through similar losses herself. But she initially did not say yes or no to the project.

By then, it was 2018. Hopkins was in the audience for a performance of the Metropolitan Opera's Così fan tutte when he received an email that would change his life. It contained a set of poems from Atwood herself. She was now on board, too.

"I felt like she had tapped into this deep well of emotion that I knew existed within me but hadn't yet come forth. Or I hadn't yet known how to express it," Hopkins says. "At that point we hadn't even met each other."

The next morning, he shut himself in his bedroom and read them through. It was an emotional process. He cried. Even though Songs for Murdered Sisters was written to be sung by any number of performers, Hopkins felt it spoke directly to his story. "When I sing it, I don't feel like a character," he says.

The one thing he doesn't identify with is the need for revenge. But he does strongly feel the need for change.

"Certainly Jake and I and Margaret discussed: Shouldn't there be a female singer's voice in this project? But ultimately we came to the decision that it's time that men own their responsibility to speak out against violence against women," Hopkins explains.

That is a responsibility Hopkins is taking on himself. As part of Songs for Murdered Sisters, he's working with the White Ribbon Campaign, a global movement of men of all ages to end gender-based violence.

As part of the campaign's pledge, Hopkins has had to reflect on the misogynist and sexist language he's heard in the past—and how he reacted to it. "I've certainly witnessed that a ton of times in my career, whether it's at the cafeteria or backstage during a performance or talking with people at a break on rehearsal. It's rampant, this kind of talk, and I've never felt comfortable around it. But I've also never had the bravery to speak out against it," he says.

Speaking out about his sister's murder, he adds, has been emotionally draining—but it has also helped him build that bravery. "Before I would feel hesitant to speak out because it's not the comfortable thing to do, right? It means being vulnerable. And in certain situations, it may be challenging given the hierarchy," Hopkins explains.

He offers a hypothetical situation as an example: "I might be talking to somebody who is in a casting position, in which case I may be putting myself in jeopardy with that person. If I speak out against something that they might be saying, that's not exactly a comfortable situation for me—who's hoping to be rehired to—put myself into."

And yet, he adds, that's exactly what he intends to do moving forward.

As two versions of Songs for Murdered Sisters are released into the world—the film and an album, both featuring Heggie at the piano—Hopkins has had the chance to reflect on the multi-year process and how his own reactions to it have changed.

For a long time, he reacted most strongly to the fourth song in the cycle, "Dream," a moment where the narrator imagines he and his sister as children, frozen in time. He begs her to stay, don't go: Don't go into the violence that future holds. But now, it's the ending that speaks to him most. He ends the video version of Songs for Murdered Sisters surrounded by empty chairs—but for each one, a light appears. And as that light overpowers the shadows of the cavernous halls, Hopkins tilts his head back, as if finding peace.

"When I am singing this song for you, you are not empty air. You are here," he sings. "You are here with me." And with that, light floods the screen, the warmth of her memory everywhere.

Songs for Murdered Sisters, a film from director James Niebuhr, streams for free through the website of Houston Grand Opera, Marquee TV , and apps like Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire now through April 30, 2021. The album version is available through Pentatone. Please take a moment to take the White Ribbon Pledge, a vow never to commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women, using the hashtag #WhiteRibbonSisters. Visit the White Ribbon campaign website to learn more.


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