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Kansas tenor brings his talents to Olympics opening ceremony

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, at 10:20 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, at 6:39 a.m.

A worldwide audience didn’t witness it, but Bryan Pinkall will forever be able to say he was the first flag bearer for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

Last month at the first rehearsal of the Parade of Nations — the start of the Olympic opening ceremony — Pinkall volunteered to carry the flag of Greece, leading the way for the country that invented the games. Later he hoisted the flags of Monaco, Canada, New Zealand and … his native land.

As soon as the United States was announced, first in French, he made some noise — and kept it up through the English and Russian translations.

Oh, and by the way: “I’m an opera singer by trade,” Pinkall said. “I screamed pretty loud.”

Pinkall, 28, a 2013 graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, is one of just two Americans on the 250-member team producing the opening ceremony, which kicks off the 22nd Winter Games on Friday (starting at 6:30 p.m. on NBC). As many as 3 billion people could be watching.

“I am still in shock at the scale of our production,” Pinkall said. “Certain moments take my breath away every time.”

The Great Bend, Kan., native, now a voice instructor at Kansas State University, can’t reveal much about what we’ll see, although the show sounds both elaborate and high-tech. A cast of thousands will make it happen, including dancers, acrobats and musicians.

Pinkall is managing production operations and directing for part of the ceremony, and he’s one of several music directors.

And get this: He’ll also be one of the performers, thanks to a late vacancy.

Pinkall happens to be something of an Olympic ceremonies historian — he has even ranked them on the blog he’s keeping of his adventures in Sochi ( bryanpinkall.blogspot.com).

“The 1992 opening ceremony in Barcelona was filled with opera, and that began my fascination with classical music as well as the Olympic ceremonies,” Pinkall said. “In my life, they run side by side.”

How did a guy from the middle of Kansas end up helping produce what might be considered the greatest show on Earth?

Well, for starters, Pinkall is an accomplished musician. Following graduate studies at K-State (he attended on a voice scholarship), he was torn between going into professional opera and earning his doctorate. He decided to try both. At the UMKC conservatory, he studied vocal performance.

Pinkall, a tenor, was performing in an opera in Chicago when he got a call asking him to sing as Tony in a scene from “West Side Story” at the opening night gala of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in fall 2011.

“It was the most amazing opportunity of my life,” he said, in part because he appeared on the very same stage as one of his idols, Placido Domingo.

He also worked as a music director intern at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village and joined several vocal ensembles. As a singer with the Kansas City Chorale, he got to attend the Grammys last year in Los Angeles.

Pinkall had applied for the Olympics gig 2 1/2 years ago. He heard nothing until a year ago January, when he was asked do a Skype interview at 1 in the morning. That started a process including more interviews and language proficiency testing.

Last September, an email (in Cyrillic) informed him he’d landed the job.

“When he got the news, we were all just flabbergasted. Including him,” remembered Don Loncasty, executive director of the Kansas City Chorale. “It was a pretty big deal.”

Loncasty has been in close touch with Pinkall in Sochi.

“He’s just freaked because there are so many things that could go wrong, might go wrong, plus the pressure of ‘it must happen.’ 

But he’s well qualified to do what he’s doing, Loncasty said.

And as someone who has studied Olympic ceremonies of the past, “when he says he’s excited about this one, it’s going to probably be a blowout,” Loncasty said.

Gary Mortenson, director of K-State’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance, calls Pinkall “a force of nature in the artistic realm.”

All the moving parts of the opening ceremony “could not be in better hands,” Mortenson said. “I can only marvel and feel a deep sense of appreciation for the work he has done in his professional life to date.”

Pinkall is, by the way, getting to soak up some Russian culture when he’s not in 15-hour rehearsals. On his blog, Bryan Pinkall’s World of Opera, he has written about:

•  The host city of Sochi, saying it combines “the glamour of Hollywood with the urban decay of Detroit.” The resort community reminds him of L.A., only rainy.

•  The food: “Imagine instant turkey gravy on top of Vienna sausages, with a salad of pickled beets …”

•  The security: It “takes me five pat-downs to get to work.” Plenty of armed guards, too.

Pinkall considers the ceremonies of the Olympic Games “the world’s largest art form, and it has fascinated me since I was little.”

Friday’s opener “will attempt to do things that have never been attempted before,” he promised. “If everything goes well, it will be an astounding production, the likes of which the world has never seen.”

To reach Tim Engle, call 816-234-4779 or email tengle@kcstar.com. On Twitter: @tim_engle

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