Sunday, February 3, 2013

A KISS Symphony Encore With Producer Mark Opitz, Part 1

by Tim McPhate/KissFaq

More than a year after concluding their Farewell Tour, in fall 2002 KISS made an announcement that they were coming back for a spectacular one-off extravaganza. And this wasn't going to be your typical KISS concert: KISS announced they were teaming with the 60-piece Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for "KISS Symphony" at the Telstra Dome in Melbourne, Australia, on Feb. 28, 2003.

"What we are going to do is a concert in three parts," said Paul Stanley. "You will see a lot of violins and a lot of violence."

While Stanley, Gene Simmons and Peter Criss were present at the press announcement, there was one individual notably absent: Ace Frehley.

"Ace isn't here," Stanley later said. "We are hoping he will be here at this spectacular concert."

Ultimately, Frehley would not return to the KISS fold, which left the door open for Tommy Thayer, who had risen through the KISS ranks and had made a handful of appearances as KISS' Spaceman in 2002.

With the lineup set, Academy Award-winning arranger/composer David Campbell was contracted to complement KISS' songs with symphonic arrangements, adding sonic heft to classics such as "Black Diamond" and "Detroit Rock City" and colorful embellishments to nuggets such as "Sure Know Something," "Forever" and "Goin' Blind." The concert performance, comprising three acts, was a trip through KISS' evergreen catalog, full of twist and turns, peaks and valleys and, of course, pyrotechnics. And the show was recorded for posterity as "Alive IV," the latest chapter of the band's famed "Alive!" series.

Australia's own Mark Opitz, the album's producer/chief mixer, recalls "KISS Symphony" as a fairly challenging project.

"I've never worked on a job as far-reaching and as wide as this," says Opitz. "And as technically demanding."

Following the concert, Opitz and his team retreated to the studio to assess what had been captured. Immediately, Opitz was aware that there were technical issues that would need to be addressed.

"The challenges were the fact that KISS are a very active band onstage, and not only active in the way they play but in the audio aspect," he says.

All throughout the post-production process, however, Opitz was adamant about keeping the integrity of the performance intact.

"I was making sure that I wasn't going to go too far in terms of correction because I know that the KISS Army is very keen to see [and hear] KISS as good as possible," he says.

In celebration of the impending 10th anniversary of "KISS Symphony," KissFAQ tracked down Opitz for a detailed conversation about this unlikely marriage of "black tie and black leather" and his recollections of working on the project.

Zoom in (real dimensions: 1024 x 838)Image
Mark Opitz

KissFAQ: Mark, let's start with the obvious question. How did you come to be involved with KISS on "KISS Symphony"?

Mark Opitz: Doc McGhee, the manager, asked a friend of mine, Michael Gudinski in Australia, for the names of three people he thought could get involved. And at this stage it was only [at] the mix level. Michael Gudinski said there was only one [person], and it was me. But once I got involved and I started to speak to a few people, I realized it was a lot bigger. I was living in Sydney at the time, so I flew myself and two of my crew down to oversee the operation of the recording aspect of the whole thing.

KF: Can you describe some of the preliminary work that went into the project?

MO: I came down and went to all the rehearsals with David Campbell and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the band, and basically kept a fairly low profile with the band, [and] just let them get on with the orchestral stuff. I had a recording truck there recording the rehearsals and was wandering around and looking at everything and seeing how it all worked, looking at the body language between the orchestra and KISS to see how that was going to work and all that sort of stuff. Obviously, I dealt with Doc McGhee a lot at that point, and a little bit with David Campbell, but I wanted to keep out of the band's face just so they could concentrate on what they had to do. Then, the next step was the rigging of the concert hall, which is a massive arena. I was using I think three audio tracks, just alone for that. One to record the orchestra, one to record the band, and then a master track to oversee the lot. It was very complex.

KF: On paper, the marriage of KISS' music with a symphony orchestra seems like an incongruous mix. Upon learning about "KISS Symphony," which was touted as a marriage of "black tie and black leather," what was your initial reaction? 

MO: It was pretty good, because it served me right. Obviously, I never worked with KISS before but when I was recommended to work with them it was a great honor for me. And I'd worked with orchestras before and I had obviously worked with rock bands before. So I thought it was a pretty good mix. I was quite excited about [the project]. But I knew it was going to be a lot bigger than initially was stated to me. So I was already doing my research through people with the production companies in America and production companies in Australia.

KF: Backing up a bit, as you may be aware, KISS had come off a Farewell Tour. Do you recall being aware that KISS was "coming back"?

MO: Yeah, I was aware of the Farewell Tour. But I was also aware that later on they wanted to do a symphony [project]. And that could have happened anywhere in the world, it just so happened the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was very experienced in this sort of stuff having worked with Elton John and lots of other people. They were going to be a natural fit. It didn't worry me that they'd already done a Farewell Tour because that was a totally different project.

KF: Mark, original KISS guitarist Ace Frehley chose not to participate in "KISS Symphony." The lineup for the concert may have been hashed out prior to your involvement, but do you remember talk about Ace coming onboard?

MO: No, Ace wasn't involved in anything. Obviously Peter Criss was involved. And you gotta remember that Peter had carpal tunnel syndrome at the time so he wasn't in what I call the best condition, but we helped him out as much as possible. But Tommy was actually more my point guy because Tommy had been the tour manager before Ace had left and also Tommy's one hell of a guy. They're all nice people but Tommy had sort of come up through the firm, so to speak, and was the main go-to guy for any questions in terms of what I might need, and particularly in post-production.

KF: This concert marked the proper debut of Tommy Thayer on a KISS album. Given this, plus the magnitude of the show and the fact it was being recorded, was there any sense of added pressure?

MO: I don’t think so, Tommy did a great job playing as well as organizing a lot of the technical stuff.

Continue reading part 1 at KissFAQ

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