Greta Brad­man:

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.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY ALANA LANDSBERRY STYLING RE­BECCA RAC

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).

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