CHATSWORTH — When the 1996 Olympic Games begin tonight in Atlanta, an estimated 3.5 billion viewers around the world are expected to tune in for the spectacle of the opening ceremony.
For many athletes who will enter Olympic Stadium behind the flag of their country, it will represent the realization of a lifelong dream to compete for the gold. For composer Mark Watters, it will simply be the biggest night of his career.
Tapped last year to direct the music for the $20-million opening and closing ceremonies, the 41-year-old Chatsworth resident has spent the last two weeks in Georgia readying the enormous productions with a literal cast of thousands.
"Nothing compares to a show like this," the Texas native said by telephone this week from the newly built stadium, where people have been working almost around the clock to prepare for tonight's event.
"The '84 Games kind of set a standard for what people expect. Each year it's gotten a little bit bigger, a little bit grander."
Although many details are still under wraps, the 3 1/2-hour opening ceremony will include the lighting of the Olympic flame, the parade of athletes and performances by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, a 300-voice choir, former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and pop singer Celine Dion. It will conclude with opera legend Jessye Norman, a Georgia native, performing "Faster, Higher, Stronger," an original work by Watters and lyricist Lorraine Feather.
The song, said Watters, "is about how we strive to reach higher than we've ever reached before. It's very moving."
Artistic Director Peter Minshall notes that the setting doesn't allow for intimate staging but predicts that the shows will dazzle nevertheless.
"The nature of a stadium experience is essentially visual and aural," he said. "It's a very sensual experience. It's big. . . . The essence of it always is the desire to let the audience both in the stadium and the worldwide audience looking at it on television see the music and hear the dance."
"It's a very dramatic show. It's a very emotional show," he said. The opening ceremony will begin at 5 tonight on KNBC (Channel 4), kicking off 16 days of competition in 271 events. "There's a certain seriousness to gathering the whole world together for an event."
The Summer Games are expected to draw 10,700 athletes from 197 nations, one of the largest Olympic turnouts ever.
For Watters, the road to Atlanta began on Christmas morning 1965, when he received his first acoustic guitar.
"It must have cost $20. It was just a real junky guitar," he recalled. "I loved it."
Inspired by the Beatles, Watters initially dreamed of pursuing a career in rock 'n' roll, playing guitar in a band called the Cobras for two years during his teens. By the time he entered MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, he had switched to the saxophone.
"He was a gifted and talented person," said Earl Haberkamp, Watters' music teacher at MacArthur High. "He worked very, very hard. He wanted to learn, he wanted to excel."
After making Texas' all-state band several times, Watters won a scholarship to USC and moved to Los Angeles in 1973. He met his wife, Vanessa, a singer, dancer and teacher, in college and the pair married in 1981.
After receiving his bachelor's degree, Watters planned to return to Texas as a band director but a UCLA Extension class in film scoring set him on another path.
"Writing is really where my passion was," he said of the decision to put away his saxophone and concentrate on composing.
Today, Watters does most of his work with a pen or baton, writing scores for the animated TV series "Tiny Toon Adventures" and Disney's "Aladdin" and conducting orchestras with singers Barry Manilow, Mel Torme and Trisha Yearwood. He's got two Emmys to his credit, he's about to start work on an animated version of "Babes in Toyland" for MGM and he's already looking ahead to scoring live-action features.
"I'm not surprised at his success," Haberkamp said. "I'm extremely pleased and proud that I had a small part in it."
Last summer, the Olympic ceremonies' executive producer, Don Mischer, approached Watters to be a consultant on planning the Games' entertainment. By the end of that week, Watters was offered the job of overseeing the music for the opening and closing ceremonies.
"I thought about it for about a second and a half," Watters said, adding that the opportunity allowed him to compose much of the music for the ceremonies as well.
As music director, Watters helped select the songs that will comprise the program and will conduct several pieces with the Atlanta Symphony during the live broadcasts. "I'm both a traffic cop and at times I'm part of the traffic," he joked.
Grateful for the chance to share their work with more than half the world's population, Watters and Minshall say it's an experience that neither will forget.
"It's quite an extraordinary and humbling thought to think that if for one moment something you created could cause the whole world to go ahhhh," Minshall said.
Watters admits he's disappointed that the ceremonies will not be recorded for sale but he's made sure to document the adventure by sneaking a camera into the stadium during rehearsals.
"A dozen times an hour I'm reminded of what a great honor it is," he said. "I probably will never have this type of experience again."
And while the threat of terrorism hangs faintly over everyone working feverishly to put the final touches on tonight's gala, Watters has other potential catastrophes on his mind.
"Our only fear is rain," he said. "If we get through it, I know it will be a success."