On paper, Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s career arc sounds like a Spinal Tap story line: Looking for a second act after achieving some success in the 1980s, a former heavy-metal guitarist decides to adapt age-old Christmas carols by injecting them with wailing electric guitars, gymnastic, classically inspired arrangements and a stage show as big as Las Vegas.
That the band’s founder, Paul O’Neill, whose death was announced on Wednesday, would turn that idea into a multimillion-dollar enterprise is nothing short of a Christmas miracle. Across two decades, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra toured seasonally, playing to packed arenas across the country and selling millions of records.
O’Neill’s death at 61 was confirmed on the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s official Facebook page: “The entire Trans-Siberian Orchestra family, past and present, is heartbroken to share the devastating news that Paul O’Neill has passed away from chronic illness. He was our friend and our leader — a truly creative spirit and an altruistic soul. This is a profound and indescribable loss for us all.”
Live, TSO was something to behold. The performances were somewhere between an opera and a concert, with narratives that carried fans on a journey and expert musicians who wrangled O’Neill’s structurally complex works with seeming ease.
The first, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” was a rock opera released by Lava Records in 1996. It featured what would become one the group’s most successful songs, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24.” Originally recorded by O’Neill’s former band Savatage, it uses as its foundation the carols “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells.”
A sequel, “The Christmas Attic,” used as its conceit a child’s experience in a dusty attic. “Beethoven’s Last Night” involved the devil and Ludwig van Beethoven in a fight for the composer’s soul.
Were parts of these works cheesy and overwrought? Most certainly. At its climactic moments, a performance could be as ridiculous as the famed musical adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” on the “The Simpsons.”
But they struck a chord, and by the mid-2000s, Trans-Siberian Orchestra was regularly landing near the top of concert industry trade publication Pollstar’s annual charts — despite TSO mainly touring during the holiday season.
Embracing TSO’s success as a student of history, O’Neill understood the legacy of holiday-themed events. In one interview O’Neill cited Charles Dickens’ struggles with the success of “A Christmas Carol.”
Said O’Neill: “Dickens made a lot of money by reading his stories at theaters, and during the Christmas season he always wanted to do ‘The Cricket on the Hearth,’ which he had an affinity for. But the promoters would say, ‘No. “The Christmas Carol.’” And he was never able to break out of that self-imposed cage.”
O’Neill added that he was inspired by Oscar Wilde to use iambic pentameter during narrated parts. “It’s not as direct as prose. It doesn’t have a melody like lyrics. It’s right in between. It’s the perfect way to keep the concert flow going but adds a more dramatic element of dialogue.”
One measure of O’Neill and the TSO’s success? At its peak, there were a number of productions touring simultaneously, and each would do two shows a day. O’Neill could perform much of an afternoon show in, say, Omaha. He’d discreetly exit while the rest of the group continued, hop on a private jet and race to another gig with a second iteration of the ensemble just in time.
To perform a New Year’s Eve show in 2013 in Brandenburg Gate in Berlin following a show in America a day earlier, O’Neill described a hectic schedule: “[T]he only way to make it work was to get a plane that could fly faster than commercial, that had an extra big belly tank so we wouldn’t have to land,” he said. “Anything that delayed us more than 90 minutes, we wouldn’t make the show.”
Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s recordings, many of which have gone platinum, have gone on to soundtrack another complex endeavor: the art of holiday Christmas light decoration.
With their complicated time signatures and inherent drama, the music has inspired amateur enthusiasts to time their seasonal lighting to dance along, securing TSO’s legacy for years to come.