Margaret Atwood pens poetry for new songs about violence against women

A new song cycle released as a digital album this week calls attention to violence against women — utilizing the words of one of this past century’s best writers on gender.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood wrote poems that were set to music by composer Jake Heggie for the new song cycle, “Songs for Murdered Women.”

The idea originated from Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, who performs the songs. Hopkins’ sister, Nathalie Warmerdam, was one of three women murdered in September 2015 by a man they had each previously dated.

“I have known two women who were murdered, both by jealous former romantic partners, so the killing of Joshua’s sister resonated with me,” Atwood said in a statement. “But I could not promise anything: with songs and poems, they either arrive or they don’t. I then wrote the sequence in one session. I made the ‘sisters’ plural because they are indeed – unhappily – very plural. Sisters, daughters, mothers. So many.”

PHOTO: 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.

The eight songs, which include titles like “Empty Chair,” “Lost” and “Rage,” were co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, and the cycle’s live premieres were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a film version of “Songs for Murdered Sisters,” directed by James Niebuhr, premiered with Houston Grand Opera in February via Marquee TV.

Hopkins’ goal is for the song cycle to raise awareness of violence against women and to encourage men “to own their responsibility to end violence against women,” a website for the project states.

Specifically, Hopkins encourages men to take a White Ribbon Pledge “never to commit, condone, or remain silent about all forms of gender-based violence.”

“I felt so numb after Nathalie’s murder. It was so shocking it was almost impossible to comprehend,” Hopkins said in a statement. “But 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.”

This is not the first time Atwood’s words have inspired music: “The Handmaid’s Tale” was made into an opera by composer Poul Ruders, with a libretto by Paul Bentley, in 2000. Heggie, too, is no stranger to converting powerful words and stories into powerful music; he wrote the opera “Dead Man Walking,” based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, with a libretto by playwright Terrence McNally.

“Songs for Murdered Women” was released in early March, to align with International Women’s Day on Monday.

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