For many music fans, catching Trans-Siberian Orchestra's yearly yuletide concert is as much a part of the holiday season as seeing “White Christmas” or “The Nutcracker.”
That's why Paul O'Neill experienced a rare case of nerves at the outset of the progressive rock band's winter tour, which is coming to Chesapeake Energy Arena for two shows Saturday. After 13 years, TSO's founder, producer and writer decided to change rock operas for this holiday season.
“For the Christmas trilogy, we never intended to tour the first one for 13 years in a row. It just kind of happened. And when I told William Morris (Agency, which represents TSO) we were gonna switch to ‘The Lost Christmas Eve,' they were like, ‘No, you can't. This is like “A Christmas Carol.” It's “The Nutcracker.” It's tradition. It's not broken, don't fix it,'” O'Neill said in a phone interview this week from his hometown of New York City.
“I was positive to switch rock operas this winter was the right move, but when your agents are fighting you that hard, you get a little nervous. So I was like buying Tums and Rolaids by the gallon from the pharmacy.”
Instead of retelling “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” the rock opera based on the band's 1996 debut album, Trans-Siberian Orchestra this season is making “The Lost Christmas Eve” the centerpiece of its stage spectacle, which incorporates a string section, several singers, pyrotechnics, lasers and a light show.
It's easy to understand why the prospect of change would unsettle O'Neill's agents: TSO has played live to more than 9 million people and grossed in excess of $350 million since the band's first tour in 1999. More than 1 million people saw the group in concert in 2011, and the ensemble has sold 8.5 million albums.
“I just thought the story of ‘The Lost Christmas Eve' would resonate better with our fans, especially with what's going on in the world right now,” O'Neill said, referring to the 2004 rock opera based on the third and final LP of the band's Christmas trilogy.
“The underlying theme of ‘The Lost Christmas Eve,' is basically hope and redemption and that it's never too late in anybody's life to change the trajectory of your life,” he added. “It might be my favorite story of the trilogy because there's something about Christmas Eve ... that I've always loved. For some reason, it's the one day of the year where human beings are able to undo mistakes in their lives that they never thought they could undo.”
“The Lost Christmas Eve” centers on a billionaire Wall Street banker who, four decades ago, gave up his newborn child for the shallowest of reasons.
As “the ultimate misanthrope curmudgeon” is forced to walk home to his Park Avenue apartment on Christmas Eve, he encounters “all the wacky inhabitants you can only bump into in New York City,” O'Neill said.
Along the way, he is able little by little to undo his tragic mistake.
In keeping with TSO tradition, the first half of this year's production is dedicated to the new rock opera. The second half mixes up hits from the band's other albums, cuts from its new holiday EP “Dreams of Fireflies (On a Christmas Night)” and samplings from upcoming records.
In the prog rock band's usual eclectic style, the new five-song offering fuses hard rock and heavy metal with other sonic influences ranging from Vivaldi to gospel.
“(It) was our way of saying thank you to the fans,” O'Neill said, adding the band's new label, Universal Republic, agreed to sell the EP for less than $5.
“Dreams of Fireflies” also will be Trans-Siberian Orchestra's last Christmas album for awhile, he said. The group is working on four upcoming non-holiday releases: “Gutter Ballet,” “Letters from the Labyrinth,” “Running in the Passion of the Fairytale Moon” and “Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper.” The latter was originally planned as TSO's debut album in 1994, and O'Neill said it is now 80 percent finished.
“I learned a long time ago, when you have the right vocal for the right song, record it and get it in the can,” he said.
“They're fun to write ... they're fun to record, but it's not real until you get to perform it in front of a live audience.”
So far, audiences have approved O'Neill's decision to launch the new holiday rock opera.
“Ticket sales are double digits ahead of last year, the fans are loving it, the reviews have been great,” he said. “I'm like ‘whew.' Now I gotta see if I can get the pharmacy to take all these Tums back.”