Greta Bradman: From chorister to diva

Twelve years ago, one of Adelaide Chamber Singers’ fresh-faced sopranos transfixed an audience in St John’s Church for two brief minutes with her pure, poised singing in That yongë child from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.

Lovely it was, no one at the time could ever have imagined how Greta Bradman’s career has since grown. Bradman is currently the most sought-after soprano in Australia, the only classical artist in this country to be signed to record giant Universal Music, and last year the opera legend Richard Bonynge took her under his wing as his newest protégé. Things have unfolded at a breathless pace in the last 12 months for the now Melbourne-based Bradman. In October, Bonynge – who was famously husband and mentor of the late great Dame Joan Sutherland – invited her to take the lead role in Handel’s opera Rodelinda in Melbourne; and soon afterwards in London they recorded a CD, My Hero, with the English Chamber Orchestra for Decca. This year Bradman performs again under Bonynge’s baton, in Haydn’s L’anima del filosofo in Sydney, and a week later she tours India with the Australian World Orchestra under Zubin Mehta. One of the first signs that Bradman might have been destined for big things came in 2008 when she pulled off a feat that perhaps only the celebrated Jane Manning could have done in an astounding performance of Tristram Cary’s experimental work for soprano and tape, I am Here. This was at one of Gabriella Smart’s contemporary music festivals, before she moved interstate to continue her vocal studies at the National Academy of Music. Her range, power and theatrical presence in that concert were remarkable for a singer then still in her late 20s. But Bradman has advanced out of all recognition in My Hero. The CD’s 17 tracks bring together nostalgia-tinged screen favourites (Edelweiss, When You Wish Upon a Star), in which her voice positively glows, and some of the toughest coloratura arias from Rossini and Bellini – bang in Sutherland territory. Most striking of all is how her range has grown phenomenally wide, acquiring what seems to be a full extra octave down low. Plus her vocal tone is now gloriously heraldic, reminiscent of 50s and 60s opera stars like Josephine Veasey and Louise Kirkby Lunn. Together with a pinpoint clarity that she retains from her chorister days, it makes for quite a combination. “It is a bit of a miracle that it was made,” Bradman says on how My Hero came into existence. It all started when she met Bonynge last year while studying at the Wales International Academy of Voice. “I said ‘hello’, told him a few things about myself, and said that I had ‘Una voce poco fa’ (from Barber of Seville) to show him. He didn’t know me from a bar of soap and just said, ‘Well go on, sing it’. Afterwards he stood out of his chair and said ‘I’ve never heard it sung that way!’, went into a description of bel canto and said ‘We need to find a way of working together soon’.” Rodelinda came out of that first meeting. Then grew the idea of putting out a CD. “I was already wondering about doing a live recording’, says Bradman. “My prior CDs didn’t fully reflect what I am about as an artist, recording them in a small studio where you can’t sing out. I felt I needed to redress that balance. And Richard was really keen to record with the English Chamber Orchestra. Then though there was the job of pulling everything together – funding, logistics, grants, timing of schedules with the orchestra.” My Hero was recorded over a period of 16 hours in full takes, rather than using the usual cut-and-paste method. “We did each piece two to three times, then moving on. I love recording in that way because it provides a really honest way of performing.” “There were hilarious times too. Richard is now in his mid-80s, so I thought he’s probably got better things to do than prepare all the scores. And he’s given away most of his scores now, or a lot of them are behind glass. So I got the help of a friend who put the music in Sibelius (notation software). Then I checked it all, which itself is quite a nerve-wracking process, headed off to the nearest Office Works, and spent four days at my kitchen table sticking the scores together – before sending them all off to the English Chamber Orchestra. I love that; it keeps you with a sense of what this involves, and it is also a great learning opportunity.” Bonynge’s approach both as a colleague and mentor has given her a lot more freedom, she says. “Richard has all this experience and wisdom about the soprano voice, but in the end he says you can sing whatever suits your voice. I found this liberating. He also made specific helpful suggestions. For the Bellini (Ah! Bello a me ritorna) I’d worked out a little ornamentation, but he said ‘No no, try this’, and gave me Joan’s score. So I swapped in all her ornamentation. It was fantastic.” My Hero debuted at number 11 on the Australian pop charts, which is extraordinary for a classical release. Says Bradman: “People have written to me saying ‘I’m not from the classical world but you’ve given totally bridged that gap for me’, and I love that”. “There was a tremendous amount of goodwill that went into making it, and it is a testament to people like Richard and the English Chamber Orchestra who have a great belief and generosity towards classical music. They are a wonderful bunch of extraordinary human beings.” Bradman appears in From Broadway to La Scala on Saturday, September 5 at the Festival Theatre. Later she sings in Adelaide Philharmonia Chorus’s Messiah on Friday, November 20, and in Adelaide Chamber Singers’ Celebration concert on Saturday, November 28, both at St Peter’s Cathedral.  

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