On 16 March last year, Switzerland closed its borders and I, like the rest of the world, was forced to stop in my tracks. For me, this date was especially significant, because the Academy Principal, Jonathan Freeman Attwood, had asked me to come to London to watch the Royal Academy Opera (RAO) singers in two performances of Massenet’s Chérubin on 13 and 14 March. I had been appointed Head of Opera at the Academy in mid-February, when the threat of an imminent global lockdown was as yet far from our minds. I travelled from my home in Zürich to London on 13 March, somewhat nervously, as by then things were not looking good and countries were closing one by one. Frankly, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to travel back home.

I saw the two performances, which were wonderful (bravi tutti!) and I got to meet Jonathan properly, as well as other lovely colleagues with whom I would be working. I managed to get a flight back to Zürich just in time! From then on it was total lockdown and for me, as for many of us, it was a huge shock to the system, to put it mildly. I had been living in the fast lane for years. In my function as Director of the International Opera Studio at Zürich Opera, I not only ran a 24/7 programme in one of the world’s busiest opera houses, but I travelled extensively to hear young singers all over the world, trying to lure them to our programme. My suitcase was always half-packed. In the months prior to the lockdown, I had been in Oslo, Salzburg and New York, and I was scheduled to teach in Warsaw and at the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow in the coming months. It was non-stop.

The first lockdown was a wake-up call for me and it gave me a chance to reflect on life and on what is really important. I revisited music that I hadn’t listened to in a long time and reflected on some of the wonderful experiences I have had over the course of my life and career. I’ve chosen pieces which bring me back to some of those times.

Chopin Ballade No 4 in F minor, Op 52 – Krystian Zimerman

I trained as a solo pianist and this is my first love. When I left Ireland after my studies at Trinity College Dublin, I went on to study piano at the Musikhochschule in Freiburg, Germany, for three years, which was a truly eye-opening experience for me. One of the great things was attending the many series of concerts and recitals that took place there. That was where I first heard the Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman. He had won the International Chopin Piano Competition and he was touring during a time when the Iron Curtain still existed, meaning that foreign travel was limited to the very few, so it was very touching to hear someone from Poland playing their own music. I will never forget the luminosity of his playing and especially his use of rubato – almost as if he had a direct line to Chopin. There is such a great tradition of piano playing in Poland, which stems from their great emphasis on musical education from an early age – something that, in my opinion, other countries could learn from. In this recording I am reminded of how Zimerman plays with such poise and beauty of sound and of how he is not afraid of intimacy and delicacy.

Watch it here.

Schubert Das Wandern from Die schöne Müllerin, D 795 – Christian Gerhaher

I can’t live without Schubert’s Lieder and have played many of them over the years, be it playing along in lessons and coaching sessions, or performing them in exams or concerts. They are just great to play! Die Schöne Müllerin is one of Schubert’s extended song cycles and it’s a great favourite of mine. I was lucky to hear the German baritone Christian Gerhaher singing this some three or four years ago in a recital in Zürich Opera House, with the wonderful pianist Gerold Huber.

Gerhaher is a Visiting Professor at the Academy, and I very much hope to be able to invite him back as soon as things open up again so that our students can benefit from his great experience and artistry. When Gerhaher sings, one hears every single word as clear as crystal. It’s like he is speaking it to us. The importance of delivering clear text is something that I try to emphasise to my students, because text is, of course, the one single thing that separates singers from instrumentalists. It is also the whole point of the storyline, be it in song, oratorio or opera.

Gerhaher is a phenomenal communicator and a consummate musician. Everything is about text, phrasing and colour. When he sings, he looks into the eyes of his audience, which is not an easy task! And it’s great to hear a German artist singing in his own language.

This is a lockdown go-to for me because it reminds me of the sheer joy of attending live performances (something I miss hugely, as I know we all do) and of how such great works of genius have the power to uplift us and to take us out of the gloom.

Watch it here.

Mozart Overture/Così fan Tutte – Sir Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

With such a huge wealth of great music at our disposal, it’s near impossible to have a favourite composer, but for me it has always been Mozart. In my opinion, his music has a spirituality that transcends everything, and I find it hard to believe that such beauty could come from one person. The heart-breaking ‘Lacrimosa’ from his Requiem is possibly my favourite piece of music ever. However, I’ve chosen the overture from my favourite opera, Così fan tutte, because this term RAO will stage this opera, which will be such an uplifting event for us in these difficult times. We are so lucky that Laurence Cummings will conduct the Royal Academy Sinfonia and that the young British director Simon Iorio will direct it. We are busy preparing it in lockdown and I can’t wait for the performances in the Susie Sainsbury Theatre in March!

I’ve chosen a recording with Academy alumnus Sir Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE). I will never forget hearing a groundbreaking Così in the Glyndebourne Festival of 1991, with Sir Simon and the OAE. It was one of those performances that changed my life. I was then a member of the Glyndebourne music staff, and in 1994 I jumped at the chance of assisting Sir Simon as repetiteur on Glyndebourne’s new production of Don Giovanni. It was an unforgettable experience.

Working with Rattle inspired me to look into the depths of this music in a new way and I learnt a lot from him about musical style and about how to bring this music to life. I remember him telling us how he had prepared the score for three years beforehand. This reminded me of the 10% inspiration/90% perspiration theory, which I strongly believe in! I went on to assist Rattle later in productions of Parsifal in Amsterdam and Peter Grimes in Salzburg, which also count among the most fulfilling experiences I have had in my career. I consider him to be one of the greatest conductors of our time.

Listen to this performance here

Verdi Macbeth sleepwalking scene – Maria Callas, La Scala 1952

My first professional job as repetiteur was at Scottish Opera, where I spent two very happy years. One of the great initiatives of Scottish Opera was to bring opera to the highlands and islands with Scottish Opera-Go-Round, which was basically an outfit of six or seven young singers and a pianist, travelling with a small crew in a bus for three or four weeks. I got to spend time in such far-flung places as Bowmore, Portree and Acharacle. In my first season with Scottish Opera, we toured with Verdi’s Macbeth, directed by the as-yet rather unknown opera director Richard Jones. The wonderful Academy vocal professor, tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele, sang a heart-rending Macduff each night. It was a really imaginative production, and I remember that my upright piano served also as a witches’ cauldron, with smoke (well, dry ice) billowing out of it! I was dressed as a witch myself.

I’ve chosen the sleepwalking scene with Maria Callas, recorded live in La Scala in 1952. What a beautiful piece of music this is, as much for its orchestral richness as for its great melodies. The oboe and clarinet solos are heartbreaking and Callas’s rendition is unsurpassed. One can clearly see why she is often considered the greatest opera singer ever. Even in this old recording we can hear each word. She uses her voice as a vehicle to express raw emotion and her honesty brings one to tears. I have never heard the top D flat at the end sung as beautifully, where Callas rises beyond the most technically difficult note of the aria to express how Lady Macbeth is a broken woman.

Watch Maria Callas's performance here

Learn more about Brenda Hurley, our new Head of Opera, on the Academy’s website.