We had a chat with Christofer Johnsson from Therion for the forthcoming release of their next work, “Beloved Antichrist”, a colossal Rock Opera which is going to be brought on tour and will be staged in Opera Houses afterwards. Enjoy!
Hello Christofer! It’s a honor to us, to be able to exchange a few words with the mind behind one of the historical bands of symphonic metal. Would you have bet on such a long-lived career, at the beginning of this route?
We had got very short goals, of course I wanted to play music the rest of my life, but you know, when we started at the beginning, our first goal was just to make a demo tape, our goal was to record it and we never really planned so much forward, so now we’ve been around for 31 years and it feels like “wow!”, but when I think about it, I’m only 45 years old so we will probably make another 25 years playing.
We have been worried about your health and we are so glad to see you working again, could you tell us something about that, just to reassure your fans?
Yeah well, I’ve never been 100% recovered, if you have a hernia in the neck you will always be fragile, I could never carry anything heavy and I can never do any headbanging, but it seems like guitar playing is back to normal. Yeah, it feels a little bit harder at the end of the shows, like we did some festivals in August and of course I’m better now, but then everything felt okay for one and half our but when we played the last fifteen minutes it was a little bit harder. Normally we would play over two hours but we have set the setlist for one hour and fortyfive minutes now, because I knew I could do it in those festivals back then, and it’s a long tour, so I don’t want to exaggerate it, it’s better to have some safety margins. I think it’s gonna be fine, but if we would perform the whole Opera it’s three hours, I’m not sure I can do that, it would probably be a problem.
If you had to summarise “Beloved Antichrist” in a spot to involve our readers, what would you say?
Well, first of all, the biggest misunderstanding is that it’s a new album; I think we made a bitter mistake there in the informations that we gave out, because we call it as a Rock Opera and most Rock Operas are regular albums but with the storyline. I think it would be correct to call it a rock metal Musical with Opera vocals; this should be compared with “Jesus Christ Superstar” or something like that, this is a work written for stage with a theatrical performance, so yeah, it’s a Therion’s Operatic Musical, that’s how to summarize it. The story deals with the rise and fall of Antichrist.
In my opinion, a project like this one is well thought out, could you tell to our readers where this originates from and how it developed?
Well, it goes back to… I’m not even sure what year it was, cause at the beginning of 2000-something, 2001/2002, let’s say 2003, some time back there, when I wanted to write a classical regular Opera and I started to compose on it but I failed completing it. I think it was damaged by rock music in my thinking, I can write the highlights, you know, the famous part of an Opera, but I have a problem to write the… how should I call them, the “boring” parts in between that bridge the highlights. So in the end, I didn’t finish the Opera, so I had an unfinished Opera, and I was thinking like “what should I do about this now?” and at some point, I didn’t write any music for… I don’t know, many many years. In 2012 I just said “okay, I’m not gonna be up to finish this, so what should I do? Let’s do a Therion Opera instead, let’s take the classical parts I have and re-arrange it them into Therion”. Do you know the “Recitativo”? Do you know what that is? There’s an Italian word called “Recitativo” – we may have to explain it to the readers -, it’s a mixture between speaking and singing. This is the main problem that I had, writing a classical Opera; I don’t like to write that type of music, I want a metal base and stuff and my idea, making this classical Opera, would be to have Recitativo; but when I remade it into a Therion Opera, I thought: “no, we cannot have that into rock music and metal”, so that’s is why the length of the Opera was swelling so much, because my intention from the beginning was between one hour and maybe one hour and half Opera, and when we made into rock music it was getting like four hours. “That’s four fucking hours, nobody is ever going to listen to this”, so I cut it down to three hours and half and we recorded it. Then I listened to the recording and I said again: “no, this is too long, this is not going to work”, so I cut off twentyfive minutes and now it’s three hours and four minutes, so we have a lot of unreleased material. I decided to keep the storyline from the classical Opera; from the very beginning in 2003, the intention was to make an Opera inspired by Soloviov’s “A Short Tale Of The Antichrist”, I also had some shot in the very beginning to do it on Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita”, but I realized very quickly that this type of story is too complex, you would need four Operas to tell the story, just like Wagner needed four Operas to tell the story of the Ring, so I thought that’s not something good to begin with, let’s choose something shorter, so that’s why the short tale of Antichrist, I thought “good, I can do something around an hour”. Well, this was the idea, but once I started to work with the story I realized that this is not a very good story to stage, it was okay to read it in a book, but right from the beginning I thought “how can I make a theater out of the beginning, it would be very complex, maybe it would work for a movie, but not for a theater”, so I had to re-write the beginning and also I didn’t like the end, because there should be a big epic ending with an Opera and this end was just very abrupt and short, almost like if you write on a paper and you’re like: “oh! Only two lines left on the paper, I have to finish the story”. So that wasn’t good and then also I realized there were no fucking women in the book, you know, not one single woman in the story and an Opera without female voices would be extremely boring and also for the story, you can have much more dynamic if you have female characters in there. So I started to change a lot in the story and in the end I changed so much, that there are only three/four scenes left from the book, so it’s new written. But yeah, we kept some characters, some figures, but we invented a lot of new ones and we wanted to have an antagonist of Antichrist; we made it into a female character, a religious warrior type, she’s a bit like Joan of Arc type of woman, and to make it really a typical Opera we made sure that her sister becomes the wife of Antichrist, it’s like a family drama. It’s a little bit inspired by Wagner, I took a little bit of inspiration from everywhere, and I put it all together.
“Beloved Antichrist” is structured like a real Opera, 3 hours long and divided into acts and scenes. It includes a large amount of characters and I know you’re looking forward to play it in Opera Houses, a magnificent idea. Have you ever thought that your project was too ambitious to become true? Have you found a way to materialize your will to bring the project to the stage?
Well, it’s a bit tricky to do that, because it requires a lot of money for starts and it requires a lot of knowledge; I know everything about putting up the rock concert, but I know basically nothing about putting up an Opera or a theatrical show. So besides getting a lot of funding for this, we need also people with the right knowledge, I mean, you need a dramatist, you need somebody who can design costumes, who can make the costumes, design the stage, somebody who can manage the stage, we need somebody who can put it all together and probably twenty other people that I don’t even know that I need, so there’s a lot of research that needs to be done to make it happen and the big problem is if I get an investor, his first question would be: “okay, how much money do you need and for what? Can you quantify the costs?” and I have got no idea of what things cost. I mean, how much does it cost to make the costumes? I have no fucking idea. My dream solution would be to find somebody who works with this, who can manage the whole production so I don’t have to worry about the details; to me it’s not important that I have to direct it, I would love to have a director to do it, I just want to be able to say “okay, not that” if there’s something I don’t like, such as politics or some shit like that, it needs to be plain entertainment with no moral in the story, no politics, just good old entertainment that everybody – well, not everybody, nothing suits everybody, but theoretically could suit everybody. When it comes to Opera Houses, I think it would be an awesome idea for them to try to do something like this to get young people who are not interested into Opera; you know, to come inside of an Opera House and see the whole performance, but I think many of the Opera Houses are too conservative for that and I understand them, because when I go to the Opera I don’t want to see something new, I want to see the same old stuff. I completely understand that but I still think it would be a good idea if somebody would be brave enough to do that, because in most modern stuff they put up in the Opera Houses nobody is fucking interested, it’s just because somebody who plays in the Opera knows somebody from the government who has cultural fund money or they make something that suits the political climate of the government itself, to get the opportunity. Otherwise nobody is interested in the new stuff, even if you consider some really great works, you never see them in the Opera Houses because they’re modern.
The voices you have chosen are so emotionally involving to almost sound surreal; did you have problems finding the right voice for each role, or has it been, as they say, a fluke? On which criterion did you base the choice?
In many cases I had a very clear vision of who should do what, because I worked with so many singers in the past, we had different singers in every Therion album, year after year, so I have a bucket of lot of singers that I’ve “used” for a long time, I had it back in my head when I composed some of the music, that: “oh, this should be this singer!” Working with Chiara is also a new experience because she has a very strong high register, so Johanna is basically written for her, it would be very difficult for a regular soprano to sing it, I think it needs to be a “spinto soprano” with extra power in the height. In most cases the roles are written for somebody, in the other cases, from role to role, I tried to fit in some of the singers with whom I’ve worked before and if I didn’t, I went on the recommendations from the singers that I’ve worked with and we made the typical auditions to see if it would work or not. I realized I had 29 different roles and that was a big problem, because imagine you have in the third act a character who sings a few lines and you have to call a tenor and make him come to your studio and put on the microphone and everything else he needs just to sing like four lines, less than ten seconds. So I tried to be fine with the idea that you can have one singer in multiple roles, which is kind of common in Operas, like if you have some small thing in an act and some small thing in another act, you can have the same person doing it, it plays both characters and just changes clothes to switch from one to another. So I tried to plan it like this intentionally, because when I took my calculator out and see what I think it is gonna cost, 29 singers, even if it’s an unknown singer taken from an unknown place, it’s still a person who needs to sleep somewhere, eat, travel; I managed to plan it so that 15 singers can make the whole thing. There was only one singer that was a problem to get, because I had been a little bit stupid; I was composing one role for a baritenor – the mix between baritone and tenor – and there was one singing in “Secret of the Runes” but I actually never talked to him. It was a very stupid thing to do, and when I had to call him I came to know he changed his phone number. So I remembered about a singer from the Opera school, but he had moved somewhere in the south of Sweden and I looked for him on the social media, on Google, everywhere, but I couldn’t find him. So all of a sudden, I had a role for a baritenor and nobody to sing it and there was so much to do with the recordings and time passed; at a certain point basically all the vocals were recorded and I was like: “fuck! In two weeks we’re gonna start mixing and I don’t have a singer, what should I do? Should I try to re-write it?” so I did the possible to re-write it but it did’t work, and then, in the very last second I found a singer and we recorded the vocals two days before to start mixing. So that was a bit… stressful. I should learn from that.
The entire opera is permeated by mistical atmospheres; is there a place you visited with the band that inspired you in this sense? A particular place that made you feel that kind of sensation?
No, not really. I was just inspired by the book, you know, the images I had in my mind came from the book, but when we started to change everything – the beginning, the end and so on -, it completely mutated from the original story, so it’s something that has been built up piece by piece, if we compare what we have now with the ideas I had when we started, it has like… nothing in common, really.
Therion’s history is punctuated by collaborations with great artists, but we can’t help being so proud to see Chiara Malvestiti among Therion’s rows; after a good time frame – it’s been three years now -, what do you think about this line-up change?
Well, Therion has always been kind of organic when it comes to singers, because from 1996 until 2007 there was no permanent singer in the band. That was the whole concept: you can change guitar sounds and you can change voices as well, of course it was quite difficult to find someone who could take the place of Lori, because she has got a more… “cute” voice, she sounds very “pretty”, while with Chiara we have this very very strong voice, which is very powerful and it’s a great luxury to have those extra notes in the upper register. I guess the result is that I dare to write something more “hardy”, otherwise I would have more safety margins. The great thing with Chiara is that now I can really explore my love for high pitch voices.
A surprising thing about Therion, in terms of live shows, is the tour range; are you happy to come back to Italy? Your Italian fans can’t wait to see you again!
Yeah it’s gonna be great, because we are going to play in Rome for the first time, I think we have never played there before. We have played in many different cities but I think we have never been to the south; neither the middle, neither the south. It’s going to be fun. Oh no, we made a festival in the south! So we have been there, but we have never had a regular headliner show.
It’s been a pleasure, I’ll leave you some due space to greet our readers, thank you again for your time!
Well, thank you for your time. Oh, maybe I should mention that there might have been a misunderstanding: the tour we are making now is a regular tour, we’re not bringing the theatrical production, what we do now is like a normal tour, we will play only a couple of scenes just in a regular Musical way and the theatrical version we’re gonna try to stage maybe by the end of the year or something like that.