Imagine what Dokken might have done with "O Come All Ye Faithful."
It all began about six years ago, when songwriter and producer Paul O'Neill became frustrated by the aesthetic limitations of the traditional rock band. His experience with the moderately successful metal act Savatage only whetted his appetite for something big and boundless and grandiose. He sat one wintry night, mulling this over. The snow fell. Christmas carols played on his stereo.
Then he had his "eureka!" moment. Three words came to mind: "Christmas," "metal," and "opera." He got to work. With collaborators Robert Kinkle and Jon Olivia, he created the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a sprawling seasonal stage show that boasts both a six-piece string section and six-string pyrotechnics, courtesy of frizzy-haired axmen bent over Jackson guitars.
The results are startling. The orchestra produces a kind of classical gas fed by a steady diet of cheesy metal. It's the only Christmas music that goes well with cans of beer. These are not your parents' carolers; these are the carolers your mother warned you about. They bring with them sparkling stage lights (Brian Hartley, who masterminded lights for the last Kiss tour, is behind the scenes for TSO) and enough faux fog to wet the eyes. All of this, to perform a Christmas rock opera whose tinkling triangles and jingling bells are embellished with hair-metal accoutrements. There are blurry-fingered guitar solos and harmonious riffage that would make Def Leppard's ears perk up. There's a revolving cast of baritones and sopranos. There are choice Christmas tunes, rearranged to be a bit darker and as overproduced as the costumes.
Imagine the Scorpions playing "Silent Night."
Of course, putting all this together was no easy feat, and neither was gauging how an audience would respond. Enter Cleveland as one of four cities used as a proving ground for the group. It was here, two years ago, that TSO gave its beta-version performance. On the shores of Lake Erie, the group tested the waters and found them inviting. Cleveland basically went apeshit over the show. "We became popular in Cleveland," says musical director Kinkle (rhymes with Kringle). "The fans in Cleveland are so into what we're doing. They're so intense."
"Cleveland is sort of the adopted home of the production," says David Krebs, who manages the group. Krebs made his name working with hard rock artists like Aerosmith and Ted Nugent, so it's no surprise to find his fingerprints on this production. "We tried to keep some of that same energy. It's a very powerful blending of rock and roll and theater. It's got its own kind of essence live."
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra debuted in '96 with Christmas Eve and Other Stories. In this indulgent metal opera, an angel is sent to earth to find the thing (it's never clear what) that most represents the good done in the name of Christmas. The Christmas Attic followed -- with the same angel, this time sent to earth on Christmas Eve to leave behind something that will most benefit humankind. For its third album, the band went with its first non-Christmas theme. Set on a dreary, stormy night, Beethoven's Last Night is a fictionalized version of, well, Beethoven's last night on earth. Of course, it includes TSO's take on the maestro's Fifth Symphony. Next spring, that show will debut in -- you guessed it -- Cleveland.
Beethoven aside, TSO made its name playing heavy metal Christmas tunes like the rollicking, inescapable "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24."
"It's a Christmas song, and it's new, but it incorporates something old," says Bill Louis, program director at WNCX, a show sponsor. When the station played "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" for the first time, he says, the phones rang off the hooks.
The city "really hopped on the single," says Louis. "We had a phone response that was phenomenal, that we just don't get. Cleveland, when it finds something it likes, puts its arms around it. We talk about it so much, it sounds like we're hyping it, but it's what our listeners want."
The song is now more a Yuletide radio staple than "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."
Critics are tepid at best when it comes to TSO. Still, when the ensemble plays here, fans come out in droves. Thanks to word of mouth, mind-numbing radio rotation, and unending hype, TSO, it seems, could pack the house in as many Cleveland shows as it can schedule. Last year, the group sold out six performances, two of which were added to meet the demand. This year, it has more shows booked in Cleveland than in any other city, with six dates at the Palace Theatre. Louis anticipates more performances added again this year, perhaps spilling into the new year. Plus, there are dates in Akron, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo.
The show is the fifth-highest-grossing holiday event in the U.S. TSO splits its forces between an East company and a West company that play simultaneous dates in different cities. Kinkle says this year's show will be similar to last year's, with TSO playing all of The Christmas Attic and following with parts of Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Another Christmas album should be out next year.
In preparation, metalheads will iron their Metallica T-shirts, and starched executives will abandon martinis for brewskies in the name of Christmas cheer and twirling drumsticks. This cross-pollination might explain the show's success. Despite the speaker-shredding guitars, families get to experience that warm, fuzzy feeling of the holidays. And because of those guitars, the denim and leather crowd files in, too.
"You see the grandparents, you see the grandkids out there, and they're all transfixed," Louis says.
Just imagine what Winger might have done with "White Christmas."
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