Simple models to Simply Majestic – Murray Free, Opera Queensland

Opera Queensland's production manager

In his role as Opera Queensland's production manager, Murray Free helps bring concepts from a simple model or sketch to become the majestic sets on stage on opening night.

From July to September this year, Opera Queensland (OperaQ) will tour its rendition of the iconic opera, La bohème. But this tour will be an aberration on the long-established company's resume, for it's the first time the chorus will be made up of locals from each region.

As part of an initiative called Project Puccini, in March and April OperaQ held auditions for adults and children to perform alongside its principal artists, employing a chorus master and rehearsal coordinator from each region to work with the artists in preparation.

The man in charge of bringing all of La bohème (showing in Brisbane from 12 July to 2 August) together from a production perspective is Murray Free.

“Project Puccini is such an exciting project and one that's also very scary for us!” he admits. “This isn't something that we've done before. Our model in the past has been to rock up with a production and our own OperaQ chorus and present it in a town. But this came about from a desire to have greater engagement with the communities we visit – to leave something with them rather than just breeze through.”

When we tour the production, we'll arrive three days before the actual performance and work with the local chorus on a piano rehearsal. That will also be the first time they see their costumes. Not only is there the task of working with eight different choruses, but also making sure the set fits into the different theatres across Queensland. "That's one of the challenges of the production manager, to make sure a production that sits on the Conservatorium stage also fits into a smaller regional venue," Murray says. But then he's used to coming up against tricky things like this. "I look after everything that's behind the scenes," he explains of his pivotal role at OperaQ.

“My team and I take an idea from the director and designers and turn it into some form of reality – taking it from a drawing or model and making it real.” He adds that it's also important to manifest those original ideas as economically as possible. “It's a fine line between the financial side and the creative side. It's about finding a way to make something happen for the dollars that we have. Anybody can do anything with lots of dollars, but the challenge is realising a brilliant idea or concept for the available budget, without stifling the creativity.”

One of Murray's proudest efforts was as stage manager for the 1985 production of Aida at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC.

“It was the largest production I'd worked on up until that point,” he recalls. “Doing that as a young stage manager with 190 people on stage plus an orchestra of 80 musicians is something I'll always carry with me.”

That satisfaction and pride in his work remains strong in Murray today.

“Watching a production evolve and come to life is what inspires me,” he says. “I love seeing it run smoothly and knowing that we've done our job well and produced something that's world class and could stand up on a stage anywhere in the world.”

WORDS Mikki Brammer, PHOTOGRAPHY Stephanie Do Rozario

This article was published 20 April 2016

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