Trans-Siberian Orchestra founder and main songwriter Paul O’Neill is known for taking his time to get every detail right when making albums by his combination progressive rock band/orchestra.
He famously fell four years behind his planned original release date for his 2009 rock opera “Night Castle” while searching to find the right vocalist to sing one of the lead characters in the story.
But there was one time when O’Neill had to deliver an album on a tight deadline – with Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s second CD, “The Christmas Attic” – and he got the job done.
“That was done on the fly,” O’Neill said. “I had the story kind of in the back of my mind, but bam! We had to write the music, get this together, get that together, and we lucked out.”
In the end, O’Neill and his Trans-Siberian Orchestra collaborators completed “The Christmas Attic” and had it in stores in 1998 – just two years after the release of the first album in what became the group’s trilogy of holiday albums, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.” (The third of the albums, “The Lost Christmas Eve,” was released in 2004.)
“The Christmas Attic” is back in the conversation this fall because it will be the featured rock opera performed by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra on its annual Christmas season tour, which comes to Wichita on Friday. It will take up the first set, with the second set giving fans a cross-section of songs from across the Trans-Siberian Orchestra catalog.
This marks the first time “The Christmas Attic” has been performed live in its entirety. For the first dozen years of touring, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” was the featured rock opera. Then for 2012 and 2013, “The Lost Christmas Eve” took over the featured slot.
The compressed timetable O’Neill faced for making “The Christmas Attic” album was somewhat self-inflicted. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra had yet to go on tour at the time but then got offers to play a show in New York City to benefit the Blythedale Children’s Hospital. O’Neill’s first instinct was to decline, but after a visit to the hospital, he was so touched by the experience, he couldn’t say no.
“I’d never heard of Blythedale, but it treats children who have major head wounds,” he said. But with only one Christmas album finished, O’Neill faced a dilemma.
“We needed a few more holiday songs. ... We dove in and did ‘The Christmas Attic,’ ” O’Neill said.
The first shows eventually led to a full tour, and in the 15 years since then, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s holiday tours have become the most popular of the Christmas season, filling arenas from coast to coast.
In all, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra plays more than 70 cities each year from mid-November through the first days of January – with matinee and evening shows in many of the cities. In order to cover so much real estate, O’Neill splits the full Trans-Siberian Orchestra into two touring units of about 40 musicians and singers each. Every note that is played or sung is done live, and the shows are famous for being filled with state-of-the-art visual effects that encompass lasers, pyrotechnics – every kind of lighting imaginable. Last year, O’Neill added 3-D effects. The holiday concerts have such huge appeal that they literally draw fans of all ages. In all, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has played to 11 million fans since becoming a touring act, grossing well over $350 million.
The story that will be presented with “The Christmas Attic” taps into a universal bit of mystery and magic: the allure of discovering a long-lost treasure. “The Christmas Attic” begins on Christmas Eve, when a young girl decides to sneak into the attic of her parents’ home while she is supposed to be asleep. There she finds a trunk filled with ornaments, toys, old records and, most notably, bundles of handwritten letters. A startling discovery in one of the letters leads to an unlikely adventure in which the girl learns how a person can make a decision that has the worst consequences for themselves, loved ones, friends or even the world at large – yet still find redemption.
One inspiration for the story came from O’Neill’s own adventures as a youth.
“I was growing up in New York City, (and) when I was a kid, they were constantly tearing buildings down to build high rises, etc.,” O’Neill said. “There was one building in particular, the walls would go around them, but me and my friends would pull down the plywood (around the buildings), and we would break in and explore them.
“There was one building, originally built in 1860, where we found an attic door that was hidden behind, we noticed it behind wallpaper,” he said. “And we pulled that wallpaper down and the door opened up, and it was filled, I mean, there were trunks of letters from the Civil War, which I gave to a college, just so many unbelievable, magical things. That’s where I got the idea for the trunk full of letters (in ‘The Christmas Attic’).”
Once the holiday tour wraps up in early January, O’Neill and his Trans-Siberian Orchestra team will get back in the studio with an eye toward completing at least one of three non-Christmas rock operas that are being recorded: “Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper,” “Letters From the Labyrinth” and “Running in the Passion of the Fairy Tale Moon.”
Whichever rock opera gets finished is due for release next year and will be the third nonholiday rock opera from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, following “Beethoven’s Last Night” in 2000 and “Night Castle.”
For now, O’Neill’s focus is on the Christmas tour and making sure this year’s production runs like clockwork.
“We want it to be just like an emotional roller coaster ride,” O’Neill said. “You come to the show, and if you’re having a great life, come add another great night to your life. If you’re having some speed bumps in life, leave your problems in the trunk of your car. No one’s going to steal them, I promise. If we do our job right, when you leave that arena … No. 1, you’re going to have a chance to recharge your batteries, because no matter what’s going on outside the arena, we’re going to be throwing so many new songs at you, so many new special effects, that the only thing the brain can do is absorb what’s coming at it. And while it’s doing that, it can’t be releasing stress hormones, which is so unhealthy. So your batteries get a little chance to recharge.
“In all our rock operas, people run into problems in life, but at the end, there is that happy ending,” he said. “So if we do our job right, when you leave that arena, you won’t think you’re going to beat any of the problems you bump into in life – you’ll know it.”
If You Go
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Intrust Bank Arena, 500 E. Waterman
Tickets: $34.50-$74.50; selectaseat.com, 855-755-7328