Symphonic Metal pioneers Therion will be releasing their operatic masterpiece, ‘Beloved Antichrist’, on February 2. Founder, mastermind, and guitarist Christofer Johnsson was inspired by Vladimir Soloviev’s ‘A Short Tale of the Antichrist,’ but translating it to music wasn’t easy.
“The biggest challenge is that you need to write music specifically for a scene,” Johnsson reflects. “Normally, you just write the song when you want, and if you like your song, well, then you record it. If you like the recording, you release an album. Simple as that, you just write songs. All of a sudden, it could be a scene where something specific happens or requires music which is very far away from what you normally write, like ‘The Palace Ball’ for instance, with the dancing in the ballroom. It’s easier in the beginning because people can just write randomly, and then you can get over 50 scenes. You can always find the scene where your music fits. But the longer you work, the fewer free spots you have there, and at the end, it’s like, ‘Okay, somebody must write music for this scene.’ And then it’s tricky because we normally don’t work that way. Fortunately for me, the other guys in the band, it is easier for them to write on command, but for me, it’s really difficult. I usually just do whatever I want,” he adds wryly. “But we managed to get it together in the end. We wrote over 50 scenes, and with the version that we’ll release, it’s still 46 scenes. A lot of music. That would be the biggest challenge.”
‘Beloved Antichrist’ stands out from other Therion works in that it is primarily written for stage performance, rather than with the album release in mind. Johnsson points out, “We call it a ‘rock opera’ because it has rock music and opera, but I realise it’s a bit misleading because the way the term is used normally, it’s just an album with a storyline. This is, by correct terminology, a rock musical with opera vocals,” he articulates very specifically. “This should be compared with Jesus Christ Superstar or something like that. The whole intention of this is to stage it in the same way like Jesus Christ Superstar, or like a Rock of Ages or something like that. But it’s very, very expensive to put up such a production. You can’t just come out of nowhere and put up such a production, even if you’re a successful rock/metal band. This is a completely different crowd. With this type of production, you can’t just make one show in one city and then call it good and go to the next one, like on a regular tour. You need to perform at least a week in each city because it will take you one day to put everything up, one day to break it down, one day to transport it. So you need to perform it at least four days to make it economically worthwhile, which means you have to do a week at each city. And while we may be able to sell out the first show in many places, we need to get an alternative audience for another three, four shows in each city, so we need to aim at a mainstream crowd there, the type of mainstream crowd that normally go and see musicals. Except they need to stand operatic vocals as well. And when you aim at such a crowd, you also need to have something very accessible, because these types of crowds won’t buy a CD and listen to it before, and be into the music. They just go for a night of entertainment, the same way they would go to the cinema and watch a movie.”
‘Beloved Antichrist’ has been a labour of love, and practically a life’s work for Johnsson. He elaborates, “And when we speak about the story in the book anyway, this goes back pretty far, the whole thing with the opera. I tried to write a classical opera back in 2003, and I wanted to use the story of The Master and Margarita from Bulgakov first, but it turned out to be quite a difficult story to tell in one opera. I thought I would have needed at least four operas, like Wagner needed four operas to tell the Ring story. And maybe I was a little bit too cocky, also; take one of the best books that was written in the history of literature to start off with your first opera,” he chuckles. “So I thought maybe I’d start with something simpler. That’s why I thought about ‘A Short Tale of the Antichrist,’ because I was reading a lot of Russian literature at the time, and the idea was maybe I could do this in one hour, so it would be more like an oratorio or something. But then when I started to use the story I realised that there’s a lot of sloth in the story. I didn’t like the ending, for a start,” he points out bluntly. “It’s very abrupt, kind of typical of many Russian authors, but in an opera, it has to be epic and grandiose, and a tragic end. In the book it was like he was running out of paper and, ‘Oh, only two lines left! Well, I better finish it off like this.’” One can almost hear the wry smile. “So I didn’t like the ending, and also in the book, there are no female characters, which would make a pretty boring opera musically with no female voices, and also for the sake of the story, it’s more dynamic if there are females. But I never managed to finish off this opera. I can write classical highlights, but I have a problem to write this recitative, when you speech-sing, the sort of thing which is a mixture between speaking and singing. I can’t write that, you know? I can’t write the boring parts that you need to bridge the highlights. So I got stuck,” he admits frankly, “and around 2012, I realised I hadn’t written one single note in years, and I asked myself why I wanted to write a classical opera anyway. Did I have something to prove?” Johnsson almost sounds as though he’s considering the question anew. “What’s the reason behind it? And I thought to myself, ‘No, I really have nothing to prove, it’s just an idea that sounded fun, and apparently, it was a bad idea; because I didn’t finish it,’ he answers with almost philosophical wistfulness. “So I thought, ‘Well, let’s just take what I have and re-arrange it into Therion, and make a Therion opera. Do what you’re good at.’ Therefore, the story just followed.
“The entire beginning, which reflects geopolitics of the 1800s felt very not relevant at all today, and also it’s like two stories. The beginning really has nothing to do with what comes later in the story. So we re-wrote the beginning and we added a lot more female characters, we gave Antichrist a wife, and we gave him an arch enemy that was female as well, a kind of Joan of Arc-inspired figure; a curious, religious warrior woman. And to make it very operatic we made her the sister of his wife, a kind of family drama there. So we’re very, very far away from the story in the book, actually. There are maybe three or four scenes that are taken straight from the book, and the main character is very inspired by the main character of the book, and the mystic Apollonius is pretty much exactly from the book, and Professor Pauli is a character from the book. Our story would never have existed without the book, but if you read the book and you go and see the opera on stage, you’re going to see something completely different. You’ll recognise some small bits and pieces.”
Therion’s lyrics have typically been written by Thomas Karlsson, but Johnsson points out he wasn’t involved in ‘Beloved Antichrist’. “We spoke early on and he showed very little interest in it,” Johnsson explains. “He’s a poet, not a storyteller. And especially since originally the idea was to base it on the book, so then it’s more like trying to transcribe the story of the book into lyrics. It didn’t really interest him that much.”
As for whether Karlsson will be involved in future releases, Johnsson is doubtful. “Probably not, no. We haven’t worked together since 2009 when we were putting ‘Sitra Ahra’ together. I don’t know, it wouldn’t feel good working together now. There’s no bad blood, but just leave things as they are. But you never know. You should never say never. But it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.”
And will Therion bring their live act Down Under any time soon?
“I really hope we get to Australia one day,” Johnsson says. “I’ve been saying that in interviews since the mid-90s, but who knows?”
THERION’S ‘BELOVED ANTICHRIST’ IS RELEASED FEBRUARY 2. PRE-ORDER YOUR COPY FROM NUCLEAR BLAST HERE!