Mary Poppins, James Bond, the Industrial Revolution, and the Queen of England sticking the landing after a parachute jump. When these visions all occur in a single evening there can only be two possible explanations: you're gripped by a powerful fever dream, or you're watching the grand spectacle of an Olympic ceremony. Imagery and, of course, athletics give each Olympic Games a distinctive personality, but both the Winter and Summer Olympics have increasingly become grand musical showcases, with opening and closing ceremonies that feature custom compositions and lineups of homegrown artists who create emotional high points and dramatic narratives.
The closing ceremony for the Summer Olympics in London this coming Sunday should prove a fitting exclamation point for this year's games. Titled A Symphony Of British Music, in celebration of music being one of the UK's most important cultural exports, the ceremony will feature more than 4,100 performers. Confirmed performers include Muse and George Michael and other acts rumored to be taking part include the Rolling Stones, the Who, Spice Girls, and Take That, among others.
"Hopefully it will wrap up the spirit of what these games have been, which is slightly anarchic, slightly mischievous, funny, heart-warming, emotional, inspiring, and uniquely British," music director David Arnold told the Telegraph.
Whatever the lineup, pulling together all of the music for the Olympics is hardly an easy task. Aside from lavish opening and closing ceremonies, musical components of recent Olympics have included original theme music, nightly medal ceremonies, nightly concerts, and performances that are part of each city's "Cultural Olympiad."
At the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2010, all things musical were overseen by music director Dave Pierce, an Alberta-born composer and producer who made the Olympics a career goal after attending the Winter Games in Calgary, Alberta, in 1988 as a teenager. He composed more than five hours of orchestral score, produced another 500 hours of special recordings and worked directly with ceremony performers such as Bryan Adams, Nelly Furtado, Sarah McLachlan, k.d. lang, Loreena McKennitt, and Ashley MacIsaac.
Pierce, who won an Emmy for Outstanding Music Direction for his Olympic work, says one of the key requirements of music for the Olympics is maintaining a balance of the monumental and the personal.
"It's an event on such a large scale — I believe the number was 3.2 billion people who tuned in to the Vancouver opening ceremony," says Pierce. "The scope of the music has to reflect that, so you're creating a lot of music in broad strokes with very few subtleties.
"At the same time, the music plays an important role in focusing on the spirit of individual athletes and the emotions they experience, so you have to allow for moments as intimate as k.d. lang singing Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' at our opening ceremony. Every moment has to be timed and crafted to have just the right impact. The music really helps tell the story of each Olympics the way a soundtrack supports the story of a film."
Getting the musical moments to flow flawlessly through the course of the games is a uniquely complicated logistical challenge.
"We knew who our guest artists were going to be about four months ahead of the games," says Pierce. "And it didn't feel like just booking everybody for another gig — it became a much more collaborative spirit focused on how we all work together to present the music of our country. But you end up with very little rehearsal time and a lot of last-minute decision making. There were times when I had themes written and a production staged before we'd really worked out which artist was going to be featured in that moment. I remember playing something for Sarah McLachlan on the piano in her home, anxiously waiting for her to say, 'Yes, that's OK,' because I knew that at that same moment there were 400 people already [rehearsing] that music."
Even with rehearsals, the full spectacle of an opening or closing ceremony doesn't really come together until the actual live performance for the world — another high-pressure element unique to the Olympic stage.
"Yeah," laughs Pierce, "no matter what you've got planned, you really only get one shot at it. You can't really ask the world to tune back in next week after we've worked out all the bugs."
For performers, the Olympic stage offers a unique opportunity to present one's talents and home-country pride to a global audience. For the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, the last time the games were hosted on American soil, closing ceremony highlights included acts such as Kiss, the Dixie Chicks, Dave Matthews Band, Earth, Wind & Fire, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. At the Summer Olympics in Sydney in 2000, Australian pop star Tina Arena created an emotional highlight singing a specially written song, "The Flame," during the opening ceremony.
"It still blows me away that I was chosen to participate in the event," says Arena, who performed in Sydney along with artists such as Olivia Newton-John, Kylie Minogue and Vanessa Amorosi. "I remember being on that stage and feeling so many emotions at once — nervousness, excitement, inspiration. I had to concentrate on breathing deeply and drawing on every bit of inner strength, while hoping that I wouldn't let the home team down. It really is difficult not to be swept away by the magnitude of the moment and the magic all around you, and after I was done singing I could barely speak. I was far too overwhelmed."
Pierce has made a career of musical spectacles, having worked as a music director for such events as the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. But he says he'd be thrilled to work on another Olympics if the games ever come back to Canada.
"The Olympics is really sports and culture walking hand in hand, and music plays such an important role in supporting all of that," says Pierce. "It's a huge undertaking, but it's something I feel very drawn to and comfortable with. I've worked on other projects where people actually said of my work, 'That's nice but it's too Olympic.' When I finally had the chance to work on the Olympics, they'd hear what I came up with and say, 'Yeah, that's perfect.'"
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)