Bryan Pinkall was a 7-year-old visiting his grandparents in Salina, Kan., as the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics was unfurled to the world on July 25, 1992.
Long before he earned his doctorate at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance and became a Grammy-winning soloist and chorist with Kansas City Chorale, the Great Bend native was riveted that night by the operatic elements and stars.
More than that, though, he was mesmerized by a sheer spectacle that was punctuated by Antonio Rebollo shooting a flaming arrow to light the Olympic cauldron.
Which explains how he came to put together a remarkable database of Olympic history, highlighted by facts about and footage from opening ceremonies:
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“Witness the World’s Largest Art Form,” he labels it.
And it’s hard to disagree with that when you consider the range:
From the two-day welcome of the 1896 Athens Games to the incomparable phenomenon at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing 2008; from the chill-inducing scene of Muhammad Ali in Atlanta 1996 to the unnerving tone set at Berlin 1936; from the rocking mirth of London 2012 to the odd pageantry of the 1956 Stockholm Equestrian Games — where all participants rode in on horseback in an offshoot of the summer Games necessitated out of quarantine laws in Australia.
That night in Salina also explains why Pinkall, 31, was sitting Thursday at a sidewalk café near Copacabana Beach in Rio, where he met with The Star to talk about assisting with artistic organization for the Rio Olympics opening ceremony on Friday at Maracana Stadium.
Pinkall, an assistant professor of music at Kansas State who performed in a similar role in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, also is assistant manager for the operation of “protocol events” such as the parade of nations.
By now, Pinkall has come to see the Olympics as something beyond art, too.
And it can be very much that.
He thought of Salt Lake City 2002, for instance, the first Olympics in a post 9-11 world.
The sight of U.S. President George W. Bush walking alone to the center of the stadium that night was breathtaking — as was that of Bush being joined by an honor guard of New York City police officers and firefighters carrying the ragged American flag from the ruins of the World Trade Center.
“Everyone was still very in shock and worried that another attack was going to happen,” Pinkall said. “That was sort of a great healing moment for the country.”
The Olympics also is about “the best of us,” he says, and at its best, anyway, it is: the capacity for the greatest athletes in the world to compete in a peaceful reprieve from all its troubles.
While Pinkall is obliged not to give away anything about the ceremony, he believes it also will provide a reprieve and a fresh start from the onslaught of criticism of Rio.
The city has suffered from an economic meltdown that has led to a spike in crime, a deluge of logistical and safety concerns and a perception that a fiasco could await.
“I feel so bad in a way for the people who live here, because it’s a great place, it’s a great city,” he said, as waves smashed on the beach in the near distance and youths played volleyball with their feet a few yards away. “And they live with a joy here. I’m excited for the world to see that so we can maybe not have to talk so much about Zika and all those other things.”
That said, the ceremony that will enable viewers to get a succinct understanding of Brazilian culture and history won’t censor its issues.
“I think (the goal) is to be honest and to show the true happiness and the real history of this place,” said Pinkall, who has been here three weeks but otherwise engaged in the process for months. “And there are difficult moments in their history, and there are beautiful moments in their history.”
And so …
As Pinkall wrote in his blog (“Bryan Pinkall’s World of Opera, Olympics and More”): “You will see this unfold in great spectacle, but in describing Rio, the history of all the music that originated here (samba, bossa nova, funk carioca, choro) and in describing the ethnic diversity — all of those stories begin in the favelas, the slums of Rio.
“Even the great Brazilian film, ‘City of God,’ which is also Rio’s nickname, is about life in the favelas.”
Since the director of the film, Fernando Meirelles, is one of the three main creative forces in the opening ceremony, perhaps it’s not surprising that favelas will have a prominent place in it.
“As they plaster the sides of the many mountains, which tower over the beaches and wealthy, seaside neighborhoods, the favelas are a curiosity to most but a vital part of the cultural history of this city,” Pinkall wrote. “So, thousands of seats were removed and slowly, a large ‘favela’ was built within the stadium, serving not just as a backdrop, but a feature from which the story of Rio will be told in the ceremony.
“Is your imagination racing yet?”
If Pinkall is reluctant to reveal too much or even elaborate more on his role, maybe it’s because of a harrowing experience in Russia.
And we don’t mean the part where he was asked to don what he called a “cotton-ball light-up costume” to help out when there were a few no-shows for the ceremony.
Or even the “distraught” feeling of seeing only four of five giant snowflakes transform into Olympic rings early in the program.
On the eve of the ceremony, Pinkall was interrogated by Russian secret agents who threatened to deport him for what he wrote was “dangerous or perhaps illegal” photos and information.
“Sochi’s a beautiful place: palm trees in Russia,” he said, laughing. “One day you wake up and look out the window and there’s a bunch of warships. It’s not like anyone’s not going to notice.”
So he posted photos and blogged about it, noting, “Naval warships dot the horizon, military helicopters and jets are constantly overhead, and the ever abundant security force on the ground was on full display …”
After hours of browbeating him about blog entries, authorities agreed to let him stay if he canceled a scheduled interview on Russian television and deleted blog posts about Russia.
As it happens, there was a particular reason for this.
“In hindsight,” he said, “they used the Olympics to amass their military to invade Crimea.”
The experience still was fulfilling for Pinkall, whose work there included having the privilege at a rehearsal to carry the flag of Greece (traditionally the first in the procession of the parade of nations) up the ramp into the arena.
“Selfishly, I just wanted that perspective,” he said.
One he’d been studying for decades.
And one he’ll have another unique view of on Friday as he helps a cast of 12,000 put on a show expected to be seen by billions … whose imaginations could be stoked just like his was 24 years ago.