No show could ever eclipse “The Nutcracker” as the quintessential Christmas must-see event. But over the past 15 years, the bombastic progressive band Trans-Siberian Orchestra has made a huge holiday splash in November and December with its rock opera “Beethoven’s Last Night,” which mixes classical music, orchestral splendor and heavy metal with an eye-popping laser light show, spectacular pyrotechnics and other state-of-the-art special effects.
This thrilling live show – a combination of Pink Floyd’s visuals, KISS’ fiery theatrics and a symphony’s grand musical scope that features more than a dozen musicians - has helped make TSO one of the Top 10 ticket-selling acts of the 2000s. It’s all part of the grand vision of Paul O’Neill, TSO’s founder, composer and producer. This year, TSO debuts “The Lost Christmas Eve,” the finale of its Christmas trilogy recorded from 1996-2004. The show hits the BB&T Center in Sunrise at 4 and 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14.
O’Neill talked to Miami.com about the performance and some of the difficulties he has faced in putting together such a massive production.
So why did you choose to perform “The Lost Christmas Eve” this year?
With what’s going on in the world right now, I just felt that the story and the theme behind “The Lost Christmas Eve” would resonate more with our fans. The underlying theme is hope and redemption. And I’ve always been fascinated by Christmas Eve, because it’s the one day of the year that seems to allow human beings to undo mistakes that they’ve made in their lives, no matter how long ago. I’m sure you know people who haven’t talked to a parent, a friend, a sibling, a coworker in decades, but on December 24th they can pick up the phone and say, I can’t remember what we’re fighting about, and can we just hit reset.
I was thinking what could be the biggest mistake a human being could make, and I thought of abandoning one’s newborn child. So my story is about a Wall Street billionaire banker who 40 years before had abandoned his newborn child, and now four decades later it’s Christmas Eve and he doesn’t even realize what day it is – he only knows his driver is not there and he can’t get a cab and it’s snowing out, so he has to trudge home through the snow to his apartment on Park Avenue. And on the way he passes a cathedral, a blues bar, an old hotel – all the wacky inhabitants you can only bump into in New York City. And little by little, he’s able to undo that mistake.
So what specifically struck you about today’s world that inspired this choice?
There’s always been greed in the world, but the last decade has kind of been about greed without purpose. If I gave you a billion dollars and told you to spend it every day like a drunken soldier who just got into port, you couldn’t spend it all in a lifetime. I know people who are very wealthy, with the houses and the cars and all the trappings, and they are truly miserable. But I also know people who survive from paycheck to paycheck that have been happy all their lives.
So in the end, when the billionaire, the Harvard grad, the titan of industry, is reunited with the son, who’s living on less than $200 a week in a single room in a hotel in the Bronx, the kid’s happy.
It’s a bit of a departure from TSO’s recent performances of “Beethoven’s Last Night” – were you concerned about how it would be received?
There’s only been two times in my life when I’ve ever been nervous about a concert. The first was when we played “Beethoven’s Last Night” in Vienna, Beethoven’s town. And I was like, “Are they gonna think it’s sacrilegious, are they gonna hate it?” but it sold out and had standing ovations, so - whew.
And with “The Lost Christmas Eve” - when all your agents are this nervous, telling me not to fix what ain’t broke, by osmosis I started to get nervous. I was buying Tums and Rolaids by the gallon. But within the first five shows, the reviews were through the roof, the band was ecstatic and the agents called and said ticket sales were double-digits ahead of last year.
TSO’s shows are notorious for their excess and sheer power. What are some new special effects we can expect?
For years, I’ve always wanted this humongous clock, with a video screen built in, that would swing like a pendulum across the stage and look really dangerous, like it was gonna explode and everyone would burst into flames. But when we started working on it in 2000, the engineers said it weighed about as much as a small car, the torque is amazing and we’re not sure we can control it. But as time has gone by, the weight of the video systems has gotten less and less, and so this year it’s finally on the road with us.
And for the past few years we’ve had these catwalks that come out of the ceiling and connect the stage at the front of the arena to the stage at the back of the arena, so at any point during the show, even if you’re on the third level, there could be a musician right in front of you. This year, we have these robotic arms that hide within the staging and then at one point all of a sudden there are musicians floating 50 feet in the air over the audience.
Do you sometimes run into problems with power outages?
A few years ago – after we blew the main circuit breaker at the Meadowlands - we started carrying two tractor-trailers of generators for extra juice. Then at a show in 2007 in Jackson, Miss., the stage suddenly went dark and the manager came running over, and I said, “I know – we just blew the circuit breaker for the building.” And he said, “No, Paul, you just blew the circuit breaker for Jackson.”
Trans-Siberian Orchestra founder, composer and producer Paul O'Neill