Last fall, Trans-Siberian Orchestra made the biggest change ever to its annual holiday tour. After having performed its rock opera “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” as the centerpiece of its show for its entire 13-year touring history, founder and band leader Paul O’Neill decided to spotlight a different rock opera.
Instead, Trans-Siberian Orchestra performed “The Lost Christmas Eve,” the 2004 album that was the third and final chapter in the group’s trilogy of Christmas rock operas.
O’Neill didn’t dare talk about it last year, but his decision to switch from “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” to “The Lost Christmas Eve” was not popular with plenty of people involved in the group’s tours.
“I’ll be quite honest: Everybody was against switching from ‘Christmas Eve and Other Stories,’ ” O’Neill said in a November phone interview. “We never, ever intended to tour the first part of the trilogy for 13 years. It just kind of happened. Originally we were going to change it in ’08. But (booking agency) William Morris freaked out. ‘Paul, with the economy, this is not the time to be experimenting.’ So we didn’t.”
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Essentially what had happened, O’Neill said, is “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” was becoming Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s equivalent to the classic Charles Dickens story “A Christmas Carol.” “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” was a holiday tradition, a story (and in the case of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, also a musical and live concert spectacle) fans looked forward to revisiting every holiday season.
It was a safe, bankable production that was pretty much guaranteed to fill arena seats every November and December.
By 2011, though, the business logic of doing “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” was getting overtaken, in O’Neill’s view, by an artistic concern.
“Dickens got caught in the same trap,” O’Neill explained. “He wrote five books about Christmas, and he made his big money back then from reading them in theaters during the holidays. He’d always want to try reading ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ or one of his other stories, the other novellas, but nobody would ever let him. It’s ‘The Christmas Carol.’
“Trans-Siberian was designed to breed change, to constantly grow,” he said. “But we did actually get painted into that corner.”
So O’Neill bucked the objections, and “The Lost Christmas Eve” was performed in its entirety as the first set of Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s 2012 holiday concerts. And then he braced for a backlash in ticket sales.
“Everybody was biting their teeth, to be quite honest, last year when we went on sale,” O’Neill said. “And if we had stayed static (with ticket sales), especially in this economy, I would have been ecstatic. But ticket sales went up 12 percent. We were like, ‘Wow, OK.’ So change is good.”
So “The Lost Christmas Eve” is back this year as the featured rock opera. And with this two-year run, O’Neill feels he has made the statement that there’s more to the Christmas music of Trans-Siberian Orchestra than “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.” So next year he plans to switch up the main holiday rock opera again.
“Right now the band is excited, because they want ‘The Lost Christmas Eve’ to go out on a high note,” O’Neill said. “We actually rewrote the story to make it even tighter.”
As usual, though, this year’s Trans-Siberian Orchestra holiday concert won’t be a repeat of the previous year’s production.
There will be a different mix of songs in the second half of the show, which will draw from “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” “The Christmas Attic” (the second installment in the holiday trilogy), the 2012 five-song holiday EP “Dreams of Fireflies (On a Christmas Night)” and even Trans-Siberian’s non-Christmas rock operas.
O’Neill is also rolling out a new arsenal of lasers, pyrotechnics and the other visual effects that have long made Trans-Siberian Orchestra concerts the most visually spectacular rock shows going.
“As always, we’re always looking to put new special effects on the flight deck,” O’Neill said. “So every year we try to mix it up. Some things we keep for a couple of years. … And the pyro and laser companies have come up with some brand-new special effects. One thing: We have our own people who try to come up with cutting-edge ideas, but after all of this time, every light company, laser company, pyro company knows if they come up with a great special effect that’s insanely expensive, there’s one band dumb enough to buy it.”
O’Neill’s willingness to keep investing in the live show – he’s also famous for making sure the group can replicate virtually every musical detail of the studio versions of its songs live – has been one reason Trans-Siberian Orchestra has achieved such enormous success since it first went on the road in 1999.
O’Neill, longtime producer of the progressive metal band Savatage, founded Trans-Siberian Orchestra in 1993 around the idea of combining a rock band and symphony to perform, for the most part, rock operas. The cast of musicians and singers would change to suit the needs of each composition.
Originally, the plan was to debut with a nonholiday rock opera. But O’Neill decided instead to tackle what he considered the most challenging project first – the Christmas trilogy, beginning with “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” followed by “The Christmas Attic” in 1998. Then came the first holiday tour in 1999, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra was off and running.
Along the way, O’Neill not only completed the Christmas trilogy with “The Lost Christmas Eve,” he moved into nonholiday rock operas. The first such album, “Beethoven’s Last Night,” was released in 2000 and was followed by “Night Castle” in 2009. The latter album serves as a good example of O’Neill’s attention to detail in the studio. It was originally supposed to be released in 2005, but O’Neill refused to declare “Night Castle” finished until he found the exact vocalist (Jeff Scott Soto) for one of the key characters (Lt. Cozier).
Three more nonholiday rock operas are now nearing completion: “Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper,” “Gutter Ballet” and “Letters From the Labrynth,” but they have been held up because O’Neill is still searching for the perfect vocalists for certain tracks.
“Whatever one’s vocals are finished first will be the next record,” O’Neill said. “In hindsight, I’m glad that ‘Night Castle’ waited the four years because I don’t think it would have been the same without Jeff Scott Soto. He definitely took that and made it work. Writing great songs is only half the battle. You need the right singer to do the alchemy, to bring it to life.”