Paul O'Neill has never wavered from the vision he had when he founded the Trans-Siberian Orchestra: "We just want to blow the fans away and just keep building to bigger and bigger levels," he said in a recent interview.
The rock orchestra, which will perform two concerts in Toledo today, has stuck to that game plan and struck gold.
The TSO's combination of progressive rock, classical music, and dramatic tales has found its greatest success by giving fans high-energy, scintillating holiday music, starting with "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" in 1996.
That disc, which sold 2.5 million copies, tells the story of an angel sent to Earth at Christmastime in search of "the one thing that represents everything good that has been done in the name of this day."
The TSO has sold a total of 7 million CDs and DVDs since 1996, including 1.5 million in the last two years.
Since taking its show on the road in 1999, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's tuxedo-clad rockers, phalanx of vocal soloists, choirs, and symphony musicians have performed before 5 million people, grossing more than $200 million at the box office.
Their concerts are known as much for the spectacular staging as they are for the music. Laser lights paint patterns in the air; musicians pop up on auxiliary stages; snow falls from the rafters; smoke drifts across the stage; the lighting trusses shift, and the rock world's biggest pyrotechnic display bursts with color-changing flames.
The buzz keeps growing, and O'Neill, along with longtime musical collaborators Bob Kinkel, Jon Oliva, Al Petrilli, and Chris Caffery, keeps raising the bar.
"Every year, we make the stages bigger and bigger," O'Neill said. "Bands are like human beings or corporations. They need to breathe. The minute you stop growing, you die."
He said his determination to give fans more bang for the buck does not always go over well with his accountants.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra — which has as much to do with Russia's Siberia as the Beatles do with insects — forgoes some box office revenue by adding more stage, lights, and special effects instead of seats for ticket-buying fans.
"The new, bigger staging obviously removes seats, and the new pyrotechnics effects not only removes the seats but you need this huge safety margin around it," O'Neill said.
He laughed in recalling the time he walked into rehearsal and the crew were all sporting T-shirts given to them by the band's accountants that said, "Jesus Saves, Paul Spends."
Although the TSO has released two non-Christmas rock operas — "Beethoven's Last Night" in 2000 and, just a few weeks ago, the long-awaited "Night Castle" — the holiday season is its prime time.
The band's management company tried to get O'Neill to stretch the boundaries of the Christmas season in order to bring the show to more cities and more fans.
"They said so many cities want the Christmas rock operas, they wanted us to start Oct. 1 and finish at the end of January. I said, ‘I can't do it.' Just because, to me, A Christmas Carol is a great book whenever you read it but when you read it in November, which is the Thanksgiving month, or in December, which is the Christmas month, it has more magic."
O'Neill refused to play any Christmas concerts in October or after the first weekend following New Year's Day.
But he did find a way to reach more people in that limited time period after his management took a closer look at the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's 80 members, including four lead guitarists and two drummers.
"They said you can split the band in half and still be five times bigger than any band out there," O'Neill said.
Starting in 2001, the group has been staging two separate holiday tours simultaneously. That led to the group's Toledo debut in 2001, when overall tour attendance more than doubled from 79,460 in 2000 to 177,999.
By 2004, the TSO's Christmas tour was drawing more than half a million fans and last year — the first time the band has skipped Toledo since 2001 — the total tour audience was 1.26 million.
At the same time that O'Neill strives to add more wow to his $20 million touring production, he also fights to keep ticket prices as low as possible.
"Tickets are between $25 and $60, even though we have one of the biggest rock productions ever mounted," he said. "Especially in light of what's going on in the economy, people just can't afford to pay much these days."
His concern for fans' budgets can also be seen in the pricing of TSO's new release.
"Night Castle" is an elaborate, 26-song rock opera with a 68-page booklet illustrated by renowned artist Greg Hildebrandt, designer of the original Star Wars movie poster and The Lord of the Rings illustrations.
"It's always important to us to make sure both the albums and the concerts are not just great but that they're affordable," O'Neill said. "Right now, as we speak, you can order ‘Night Castle' for $7.99 including shipping from amazon.com. And so many of our fans are in the iPod generation, you can download both CDs and a 68-page PDF booklet for $3.99 from iTunes."
He said he is saddened by the diminishing presence of record stores, where he used to buy albums in his youth.
"When we were kids, there were record stores in the smallest towns. Now some big cities don't have record stores. But even if you're in Alaska, you've got amazon.com," he said.
O'Neill, 55, grew up in New York City in a family of 10 children.
"My father was a phone repairman for Bell. He went to college full-time at night until he got his doctorate in history and began teaching. We weren't allowed to watch TV, which I thought was a major form of child abuse, but there were books all around the house. … Once I learned to read, it was all over," he said.
He remembers the thrill of bringing home an album when most music was released on 12-inch vinyl.
"We would get an album, open it up, and there'd be a 12-by-12 piece of art, booklets, 8-by-10 photos, all kinds of extras," he said. "Albums started getting smaller and smaller and smaller. I wanted to go in the opposite direction."
He also gives back to the fans by paying homage to some of the rock icons who inspired him early on, including Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the Who, Pink Floyd, and Yes.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has recorded covers of some classic rock songs and invited O'Neill's rock heroes Greg Lake, Roger Daltrey, Steven Tyler, and Jon Anderson to join them in concert for encores.
He relished a compliment he received from Lake, bassist for Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
"He said, ‘Paul, progressive rock is the best form of music because if you're in a jazz band and you play something edgy, people say you're no longer playing jazz. And if you're in a rock band and go too far, people said you're no longer playing rock. Same thing with reggae. But if you're in a progressive rock band, it's progressive rock no matter what you do because by its very definition it is progressive.'"
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra will be in concert at 3 and 7:30 p.m. today at the Lucas County Arena, 500 Jefferson Ave. Tickets are $35, $45, and $55, available through Ticketmaster, 800-745-3000 or online at Ticketmaster.com.
Contact David Yonke at: email@example.com or 419-724-6154.