Atwood, Heggie & Brahms

with the NAC Orchestra

2022-02-23 20:00 2022-02-23 22:00 60 Canada/Eastern 🎟 NAC: Atwood, Heggie & Brahms

In-person event

We regret to announce that due to the continued volatile situation caused by the occupation in downtown Ottawa, Atwood, Heggie & Brahms, scheduled at the NAC on February 23 will be postponed with a new date to be announced.   This concert by the NAC Orchestra opens with a moving meeting of artistic minds, all at the top of their game.   Acclaimed Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins makes his Southam Hall solo debut to perform a powerful new work written expressly for him that...

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Southam Hall,1 Elgin Street,Ottawa,Canada
Wed, February 23, 2022

≈ 2h · With intermission

Our programs have gone digital.

Scan the QR code at the venue's entrance to read the program notes before the show begins.



Songs for Murdered Sisters

I. Empty Chair
II. Enchantment
III. Anger
IV. Dream
V. Bird Soul
VI. Lost
VII. Rage
VIII. Coda: Song

On September 22, 2015, three women in Renfrew County, Ontario, were murdered in their respective homes by a man with whom each had had a relationship. One of the victims of this shocking crime spree, now recognized as one of the worst cases of domestic violence in Canadian history, was Nathalie Warmerdam, beloved sister of baritone Joshua Hopkins.

In grappling with his grief, guilt, and anger, and wanting to also draw attention to the global epidemic of gender-based violence, Hopkins conceived of a song cycle that became Songs for Murdered Sisters. This shatteringly powerful new work by notable opera and art song composer Jake Heggie sets new texts by acclaimed author Margaret Atwood. A co-commission by the National Arts Centre Orchestra and Houston Grand Opera for Hopkins, Songs for Murdered Sisters is dedicated to the memory of Nathalie Warmerdam, Carol Culleton, and Anastasia Kuzyk, as well as Pat Lowther and Debbie Rottman. It was released in February 2021 as a film, directed by James Niebuhr, with Houston Grand Opera, and then in March as an album on the Pentatone label, with the composer at the piano. Tonight’s performance with the NAC Orchestra is the cycle’s orchestral world premiere.

The song cycle charts a man’s emotional and spiritual journey as he wrestles with the devastating aftermath of his sister’s murder. Here, composer Jake Heggie describes each song:

1. Empty Chair
Fragile harmonies bring to mind a music box now silenced—a warmth and presence now flown—as the singer contemplates a chair where his sister used to sit. Nothing is left now, just emptiness and air.

2. Enchantment
Trying to make sense of his sister’s murder, the singer imagines fairy tales and fables that could explain her absence: something magical and mysterious. The music swirls and sparkles with imagination and wit but is ultimately haunted and pulled back to reality.

3. Anger
Stark, timeless, dark chords grow louder as the singer imagines the angry man who murdered his sister—the man she had tried to love. He pictures how innocently she would have opened the door, only to be met with a terrifying, red anger.

4. Dream
A melancholy, distant tune is suspended in a cloud of delicate harmonies as the singer dreams about his sister. They are young, with no inkling of what the future will bring. But then she tells him she has to go, and truth once again comes crashing in on him.

5. Bird Soul
Wondering where his beloved sister’s soul could be, the singer looks to birds in the sky in search of answers. Which bird would she be? The music evokes bird song as it sparkles, dips, and soars, echoing the long emotional quest.

6. Lost
The singer contemplates the countless women murdered by angry, jealous, fearful men over thousands of years. Countless lives…countless tears. The chords echo this timeless repetition and the sorrow that surrounds it. 

7. Rage
A haunted wind seems to sigh through the brass, percussion, and the lowest strings of the harp as the singer’s anger, frustration, and outrage grows. Why couldn’t he have saved his sister? Should he avenge her by killing the man who killed her? The music nearly boils over until he wonders if the ghost of his sister might ask something different of him: “Would you instead forgive?” The music suddenly blossoms and flows with new warmth and beauty at the possibility of redemption.  

8. Coda: Song
A simple tune brings comfort as the singer realizes that when he breathes and sings, his sister is with him. He hums. The air vibrates. The eternal ohm.   

Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD

by Margaret Atwood

1. Empty Chair
Who was my sister
Is now an empty chair

Is no longer,
Is no longer there

She is now emptiness
She is now air

2. Enchantment
If this were a story
I was telling my sister

A troll from the mountain
Would have stolen her

Or else a twisted magician
Turned her to stone

Or locked her in a tower
Or hidden her deep inside a golden flower

I would have to travel
West of the moon, east of the sun

To find the answer;
I’d speak the charm

And she’d be standing there
Alive and happy, come to no harm

But this is not a story.
Not that kind of story….

3. Anger
Anger is red
The colour of spilled blood

He was all anger,
The man you tried to love

You opened the door
And death was standing there

Red death, red anger
Anger at you

For being so alive
And not destroyed by fear

What do you want? you said.
Red was the answer.

4. Dream
When I sleep you appear
I am a child then
And you are young and still my sister

And it is summer;
I don’t know the future,
Not in my dream

I’m going away, you tell me
On a long journey.
I have to go away.

No, stay, I call to you
As you grow smaller:
Stay here with me and play!

But suddenly I’m older
And it’s cold and moonless
And it is winter…

5. Bird Soul
If birds are human souls
What bird are you?
A spring bird with a joyful song?
A high flyer?

Are you an evening bird
Watching the moon
Singing Alone, Alone,
Singing Dead Too Soon?

Are you an owl,
Soft-feathered predator?
Are you hunting, restlessly hunting
The soul of your murderer?

I know you are not a bird,
Though I know you’ve flown
So far, so far away..
I need you to be somewhere…


6. Lost
So many sisters lost
So many lost sisters

Over the years, thousands of years
So many sent away

Too soon into the night
By men who thought they had the right

Rage and hatred
Jealousy and fear

So many sisters killed
Over the years, thousands of years

Killed by fearful men
Who wanted to be taller

Over the years, thousands of years
So many sisters lost

So many tears


7. Rage
I was too late,
Too late to save you.

I feel the rage and pain
In my own fingers,

In my own hands
I feel the red command

To kill the man who killed you:
That would be only fair:

Him stopped, him nevermore,
In fragments on the floor,

Him shattered.
Why should he still be here

And not you?
Is that what you wish me to do,

Ghost of my sister?
Or would you let him live?

Would you instead forgive?

8. Coda: Song
If you were a song
What song would you be?

Would you be the voice that sings,
Would you be the music?

When I am singing this song for you
You are not empty air

You are here,
One breath and then another:

You are here with me…


  • bio-orchestra
    Featuring National Arts Centre Orchestra
  • Conductor Alexander Shelley
  • Baritone Joshua Hopkins
  • No headshot
    Music composer Jake Heggie

International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees