Thursday, June 21, 2018
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The wizards of awe

Even to the biggest Ebenezers out there, a few holiday traditions refuse to bow to time, like the annual sight and sound explosions of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

If you've never seen TSO's prog-music rock spectacular at Christmastime, founder Paul O'Neill is happy to fill in the blanks. "The best description of a TSO show I ever saw came from a reporter who said the only way to describe TSO is 'The Who meets Phantom of the Opera with Pink Floyd's light show,' " O'Neill said in an email interview.

O'Neill has had a front seat in rock 'n' roll business since the '70s, working with Leber-Krebs Inc., the management company that guided Aerosmith, AC/DC, Def Leppard and the Scorpions during their glory years. From that foundation, O'Neill in the 1990s gave birth to TSO. Each holiday season, the band packs arenas with fans who crave TSO's performance signatures: Light shows that carve up the arena walls, pyrotechnics that could blacken a slice of frozen bread, and music that mixes Ole Saint Nick with arena rock.

TSO returns for a holiday gig today in Tampa. The highlight of this year's show is The Lost Christmas Eve, which will be performed live for the first time. Here are some highlights of O'Neill's interview.

I'm fascinated by your background working with bands and acts like Madonna and Sting. What sort of influence did musicians of that era have on you when you founded TSO?

I was born and grew up in New York City. My main influences had already been strongly established by the time I started in the business and were basically classical music, The Who, Yes, Pink Floyd and the storytelling from the theatrical world of Broadway. I respect Madonna and Sting a great deal, because like TSO, they're constantly reinventing themselves.

Tell me about The Lost Christmas Eve. What were the challenges to staging it compared with other TSO material?

We never intended to tour the first story of the Christmas Trilogy (Christmas Eve and Other Stories) for 13 years in a row, it just kind of happened. In 2012 we decided to change both the summer and the winter rock operas, and some of the people we work with were nervous about making the change. I truly felt the theme of the Lost Christmas Eve, which is hope and redemption, would echo better with our audiences, especially with what's going on in the world today. I was very nervous this year when Lost Christmas Eve opened up, but am thrilled with the results.

For those who make TSO shows a tradition, what new things can they expect?

Besides a completely new narrated story, there are a lot of special effects that we've wanted to use for a long time, and the technology has finally developed for us to use. For the original Beethoven's Last Night we wanted a humongous clock on a pendulum with a video screen and pyro on it, swinging back and forth on the stage. However, it didn't work because of the weight of the equipment and wasn't safe. Technology has come so far that we're now able to make the clock light enough and control it, and the clock is making its first appearance this year.

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