Bigger is better

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Paul O'Neill, founder of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, got the memo about the economy and looming recession. But he obviously didn't care what it said.

He gleefully reports that this year's edition of TSO's holiday tour features double the stage production of last year, an expanded band, orchestra and choir and a weekly expense of a half-million dollars for pyrotechnics and special effects alone.

And oh yes, O'Neill hasn't raised ticket prices, which generally range from $20 to $50.

"In the beginning, some of our agents were like, 'Now Paul, because of what is going on the economy, you probably should scale down,'" O'Neill said during a mid-October phone interview. "'Scale down? I'm doubling the thing.'"

And rather than raise prices to cover the extravagance, O'Neill insisted tickets stay the same.

He didn't stop there. He had TSO's accountants find out which cities had been hit hardest by the economic downturn and arranged for special early-bird ticket pricing in those markets.

O'Neill isn't blowing smoke (or lasers or flash pots) when he talks about TSO's stage spectacle being in its own league. He refers to the visual production as being like Pink Floyd on steroids.

"It was killing when we were designing it on paper, but seeing it in real life, it's so realistic," O'Neill said. "Over the main stage alone, I think we're hanging 136,000 pounds of lights."

The bigger-is-better philosophy has been hugely successful.

O'Neill, longtime producer of the progressive-metal band Savatage, founded the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in 1996 around the idea of combining a rock band and symphony to perform rock operas.

The cast of musicians would change to suit the needs of each composition. O'Neill recruited keyboardist-musical director Robert Kinkel and Jon Oliva - frontman for Savatage - to serve as his songwriting collaborators for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

O'Neill initially found a niche by wrapping his rock operas around Christmas themes. The TSO catalog is anchored by a three-CD holiday trilogy, the 1996 release Christmas Eve & Other Stories, 1998's The Christmas Attic and 2003's The Lost Christmas Eve.

The group's other CD, 2003's Beethoven's Last Night, is a rock opera based on the dramatic events that framed the late composer's final days. The next TSO release, Nightcastle, will also be a non-holiday work.

Despite huge budgets for the CDs and tours, the popularity of TSO makes the numbers work.

Last year was the most successful holiday tour yet, with more than one million tickets sold and gross earnings of $45 million. The tour includes two traveling editions of TSO - one led by Kinkel and the other by Oliva - that play 90 cities, with two shows a day at many venues.

O'Neill isn't messing with success when it comes to the music on this year's tour. Christmas Eve & Other Stories will be the main rock opera during the first set. The second set will once again be a full-on rock concert, although O'Neill said songs from Nightcastle (which is slated for release next summer) will be added alongside selections from Beethoven's Last Night and the other two holiday albums.

"We're just raring to get out there and do it this year," O'Neill said. "We just want to be so over-the-top, it just takes people to another place."

What: Trans-Siberian Orchestra

When: 3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20

Where: Nationwide Arena, Arena District