When surgery robbed leading soprano Greta Bradman of her voice, she had to reassess her priorities. Now, writes Susan Horsburgh, she is merging her passions for singing and psychology to raise awareness of mental health.
Sir Donald Bradman’s granddaughter on her struggles to be heard
Three months after throat surgery last July, Greta Bradman still couldn’t speak or eat properly. She couldn’t taste, her tongue was numb, and singing was impossible – none of which was normal that long after the operation. It was enough to worry anyone, but for an internationally celebrated soprano it was devastating.
Even when Greta spoke, the tremor in her voice was so bad, she says, “I sounded a bit like a billy goat.” The surgeon who had removed her branchial cleft fistula – a congenital defect in her neck that was causing problems – told her the after-effects of the operation were temporary, but he couldn’t promise when her exquisite bel canto singing voice would come back.
“I did not think I’d ever sing again in public,” says 37-year-old Greta, whose voice returned after six months, just in time for her critically acclaimed Opera Australia debut as Mimi in La Bohème at the Sydney Opera House. “I suddenly had this sense of just how much singing is a part of me. I’ve always sung – every day of my life since before I could talk. It’s not even about performing publicly, it’s singing folk songs in the shower as a way of coping when I’m feeling a bit down. It’s a big part of not only who I am, but how I process my life.”
It was ironic that she was forced to grapple with losing her voice – because she had wished it away for much of her life. Ambivalent about her singing talent, Greta had long wrestled with the fame and familyunfriendly lifestyle that often come with a music career. She resisted its pull by studying psychology in her 20s, training as a clinical psychologist before finally choosing music in 2010,
when she became a full-time concert performer and recording artist.
Having children, she says, was the turning point. “It completely elevated music,” says Greta, who has two sons, Jude, 10, and Caspar, seven. “Music is something that can connect generations and can connect you back to your childhood – I had no sense of that until I had kids. Before then, the idea of pursuing a career in music – not only did it seem like a pipedream that other people from the big smoke do, not people like me, but there was also that sense of, it’s just a fancy, it’s just something I would be doing for myself.”
Since turning professional in 2010, Greta has enjoyed a stellar career, winning the Australian International Opera Award in 2013 and studying at the Wales International Academy of Voice, where she met conductor Richard Bonynge, the widower of Dame Joan Sutherland. Richard has called Greta an astonishing “one-off” and raved about her “true oldfashioned bel canto sound – the sort we only dream about today”. In 2015, he conducted the English Chamber Orchestra on My Hero, Greta’s first album for the prestigious Decca Classics label, and next April she will release her fourth solo album, Home.
Greta, who is also a presenter on ABC Classic FM, says she loves making music, but has always been unmoved by prizes and accolades; her protracted recovery last year only confirmed that her joy in singing has never been about the spotlight.
“I had an aha moment where I realised the thing I would miss the most if I couldn’t sing again was connecting with people,” says Greta, who toured Australia early last year, chatting to fans for up to three hours after each show. “Music taps into really special memories and enables an emotional connection which doesn’t necessarily happen day to day. It’s one of the aspects that I love about psychology as well – having conversations and leaving people a little bit lighter or somehow reconnected with a part of themselves.”
In recent times, Greta has managed to marry her loves of singing and psychology as a founder of the Arts Wellbeing Collective and a member of the advisory board for the Australian Mental Health Prize. Chatting with her in a Melbourne cafe, it’s clear that passion, rather than public recognition, drives her. Greta suspects it’s a family trait. “I think about my beautiful grandpa and he was a bit the same,” she says. “He just had this sense of everybody being not only equal in some sort of an ideological sense, but as deeply, equally human. He, almost to a fault, valued modesty … that sense of genuinely wanting to contribute and make your life count for something more than just you.”
“Grandpa” is, of course, cricket legend Sir Donald Bradman. He loathed the adulation he encountered as one of Australia’s most revered sporting heroes and became a media recluse after his retirement in 1948. His fame was so overbearing, in fact, that his son, John – Greta’s dad –
I knew him first and foremost as a grandpa, but secondly as a really passionate musician. He’s someone I’m proud of.
changed his family’s name to Bradsen, only changing it back to Bradman a couple of years before Sir Donald’s death in 2001.
Sir Donald was a keen pianist and classical music lover who doted on his only granddaughter, but he was also one of the reasons Greta initially resisted a singing career – because she didn’t want to be seen as a “gimmick”. That fear has since subsided – so much so, that Greta has included in her upcoming album one of Sir Donald’s compositions, Every Day
Is A Rainbow Day For Me, which he wrote in the late 1920s for Jessie, who would be his wife for 65 years. Ultimately, Greta’s pride in her grandfather trumped her reluctance to tout the family connection.
“I knew him first and foremost as a grandpa, but secondly as a really passionate musician – sure, a musician who beat me in a running race when he was in his 80s,” she says, laughing. “He’s someone I’m really proud of and … if no one had ever heard of him I would still have wanted this piece on the album. It’s a song that he wrote for my grandma when they were in the early stages of a lifelong partnership, so it’s kind of sweet.”
Her grandpa’s piece, she says, stacks up surprisingly well against the other works on Home by the likes of Gounod and Dvorak. All the songs take her back to her childhood, growing up on a farm in the Adelaide Hills, singing at the pianola with her maternal grandfather, amateur baritone Horace Young, or getting lost on country roads with her “Lala”, Jessie, listening to old Christmas albums.
In 2015, Greta and her family appeared on Australian Story to talk about Sir Donald and the enduring effects of his fame, as well as Greta’s burgeoning music career. She revealed her own mental health struggles, including childhood anxiety, suicidal thoughts and self-harm, in her teens and early 20s, when she tried to damage her voice – and take away the possibility of a singing career. “It was evidently a very destructive way of trying to rid myself of a decision that I’m still working through, which is how to balance all of my passions,” Greta says now. “It was a way of … punishing myself. At the time, I looked like the model student-musician-singer – and yet. And I guess that’s the thing – you can, on the outside, be looking so fine and yet on the inside have this turmoil.”
For the perfectionist and overachiever, the turmoil stemmed from a combination of high school bullying and social anxiety, her parents’ divorce and grandparents’ deaths.
When the program aired, only her husband and best friend knew her history of mental health issues, but Greta felt compelled to tell her story so that viewers, particularly young singers she was mentoring at the time, would know that a famous surname did not inoculate anyone from emotional struggle.
“I couldn’t present this sugar-coated version of myself,” says Greta. “I hope
people know that if they share their struggles with someone else it can be an enormously powerful and hopeful thing. And there is treatment. I think it’s easy to think, this is just my lot, this is just how I feel, but if you have an inkling that something’s just not working for you … reach out and get help.”
Greta recently launched the Australian Mental Health Prize, calling for nominations to recognise those doing extraordinary work in the mental health field. “I really hope that in the next few years we get to the point where talking about mental health is a bit like talking about physical health,” she says.
“We’re not machines – emotions and an inner life [are things] that each of us has. It’s easy to assume that other people are either more together or less complicated than we are. I think that the prize can go some way to broadening out the conversation around mental health by shining a spotlight on just some of the work that is going on around the country.”
This year Greta helped establish the Arts Wellbeing Collective, devising mental-health workshops for people from 130 Victorian arts organisations. Studies show that workers in the performing arts are twice as likely to attempt suicide and at least five times more likely to consider it than the general population.
Self-compassion and gratitude have helped Greta move past the selfdirected anger of her youth, and her husband, Didier Elzinga, whom she met at 19 and married at 25, has taught her a different way to cope with adversity. “He has a lovely way of just letting things go,” she says of 39-year-old Didier, who runs a software company. “Without him, I don’t know where I’d be. I’m still ridiculously besotted.”
The couple has no desire to leave Australia, even though it would probably boost Greta’s singing career. In fact, Greta plans to pull back on her singing commitments and simplify her life next year, making more room for her mental health work and her boys. The post-operative timeout last year helped her
“get real about what was important” and how she wants to contribute.
“Singing is a part of who I am and how I connect with other people, and that will never change, but I feel like the way that I can help in this world in my own small way means moving beyond singing now and taking on a new chapter,” says Greta. “That’s going to freak out a few people, possibly.”
After experiencing her own troubled adolescence, Greta is determined to be around for her sons’ tricky teen years. Sometimes, she says, we accept the socially prescribed “shoulds” in life, such as “I should be busy”, without ever questioning whether they align with our values – but it’s okay to say no.
“Being busy can inadvertently leave you little time for the things that are actually really meaningful in your life – like the time and space to just be with your kids,” she says.
“Time like that is a really precious part of living.”
Didier has a lovely way of letting things go. Without him, I don’t know where I’d be. I’m ridiculously besotted.
Greta Bradman was very close to her “beautiful grandpa”, famed cricketer Sir Donald Bradman. Here she is pictured doing his hair as brother Tom and grandmother Jessie look on.
Sir Donald Bradman (below) grew up in a musical household and played, wrote and recorded music. One of his songs will be on Greta’s new album.
BELOW: Greta with Didier on their wedding day in 2006 (left) and in London last year with sons Caspar and Jude (right).