Trans-Siberian Orchestra lines pockets with X-mas gold 

Paul O'Neill, founder of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, got the memo about the economy and looming recession. But he obviously didn't care what it said.

He gleefully reports that this year's edition of TSO's holiday tour features double the stage production of last year, an expanded band, orchestra and choir and a weekly expense of a half million dollars for pyrotechnics and special effects alone.

"I think over the main stage alone I think we're hanging 136,000 pounds of lights," he said. "The trussing system will be morphing and moving throughout the entire show. So you're talking like the biggest lighting rig ever that constantly keeps shape shifting like a transformer and we've arranged it so that at times the rigging lowers itself to the stage and the band members can get on it and they can run around, move around on the trussing while the show is moving on."

The bigger-is-better philosophy has been hugely successful.

O'Neill, longtime producer of the progressive metal band Savatage, founded the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in 1996 around the idea of combining a rock band and symphony to perform, for the most part, rock operas.

O'Neill initially found a niche by centering his rock operas around Christmas themes. The TSO catalog is anchored by a three-CD holiday trilogy, the 1996 release Christmas Eve & Other Stories, 1998's The Christmas Attic and 2003's The Lost Christmas Eve. The group's other CD, 2003's Beethoven's Last Night, is a rock opera based around the dramatic events that framed the late composer's final days. The next TSO release, The Nightcastle, will also be a non-holiday work.

Despite huge budgets for the CDs and tours, the popularity of TSO makes the numbers work.

Last year was the most successful holiday tour yet, with more than 1 million tickets sold and gross earnings of more than $45 million for a tour that saw two touring editions of TSO (one led by co-founder Robert Kinkel and the other unit by co-founder Jon Oliva) play 90 cities (with two shows a day at many venues). This was enough to make TSO the second most attended tour on Billboard magazine's top 25 tour ranking.

O'Neill isn't messing with success too much when it comes to the music on this year's holiday tour. As has been the case for several years, Christmas Eve & Other Stories will be featured as the main rock opera during the first set of the show. The second set will once again be a full-on rock concert, although O'Neill said the song set will be somewhat different, with more songs from The Nightcastle (which is due for release next summer) being added alongside selections from Beethoven's Last Night and the other two holiday albums.

"We're just raring to get out there and do it this year," O'Neill said. "We just want to be so over the top it's just like, it just takes people to another place."

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