Review and Interview: The Bell Ringer
Written by Vivian Veidt on December 18, 2019
The Bell Ringer is a Winter holiday-themed rock opera from Seattle-area composer Peter Orullian and his Symphony North project that includes talent like magnificent electric violinist Val Vigoda and legendary Seattle bassist Dagna Silesia. The performance itself blends classic holiday tunes like “Good King Wenceslas” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with new music and lyrics that form a narrative intending to inspire selflessness and defend the value of self-worth. The show is a spectacle, but what really shines through in the performance is the direct narrative that seems tailored to the increasing hardships of the Pacific Northwest. At points, The Bell Ringer calls out by name the distrust that has proliferated around economic disadvantage, charity, and even the nature of holiday gift-giving. To gain some insight into the production, KPSU recently reached out to Peter Orullian to dig deeper into the meaning and intent behind The Bell Ringer.
This interview has been abridged for length.
KPSU:: How does The Bell Ringer integrate familiar pieces like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Jolly Old King Wenceslas?” How much of The Bell Ringer is purely original composition?
Orullian: Where a classic Christmas carol had lyrics that meshed with the story moment—and those were always deliberately chosen—I used them to a degree. But more often, the classic carols are used either in instrumentals whose substance is thematically and/or tonally relevant to the story at that time, or I’ve woven them in as solo and instrumental sections of other songs… [W]hen I needed and wanted to drive the narrative forward, I wrote original compositions, which constitute a little over half of the album. And, of course, when I was working with existing material, I arranged it in my own way both in terms of the orchestration and the arrangement.
KPSU: What about The Bell Ringer makes it a Winter holiday show? What was the process behind creating a Winter holiday appeal, and what thought was put into including or excluding religious affiliation and/or imagery?
Orullian: … it’s that idea of reaching out to help people when they’re down that I care about. My experience is that folks tend to be kinder and more patient with one another during the holidays. And for whatever reason, this decency often stretches beyond affiliations. I tend to believe there are some values that are human values, like kindness, and that we all—at one time or another—are in need of simple good will. I know it may sound a bit maudlin, but the holidays afford us the chance to let go of certain encumbrances that might otherwise weigh us down the rest of the year. I’m hoping The Bell Ringer is a thrill but also something of an inspiration toward the idea that reaching out a hand when someone is down is a good and decent thing.
KPSU: The Bell Ringer is described as having themes of “selflessness and self-worth.” Why were these themes chosen? Was the political climate in which The Bell Ringer was made a factor in highlighting these themes?
Orullian: … I do remember as a child seeing a Christmas special about a little drummer boy. I couldn’t relate to you all the details of it now, but what stayed with me was the notion that money and things and gifts aren’t the better part of what we have to offer. Instead, giving the best part of yourself to someone is usually the gift that touches, changes, and inspires the most happiness. Of course, there are temporal needs, and monetary gifts are needful. But again, experience suggests spending time and concern and compassion when someone is lonely or sad or sick can lift another’s spirits like few things can. Part and parcel of that, for me, is the thought that we all have something unique to share, and sometimes it’s born out of our own challenges and heartaches. That’s the way it is with my bell ringer. He’s a man whose been through [tough] times, but it’s not in spite of those times that he’s able to lend a hand to the poor and downhearted, but because of them that he’s precisely the right one to do so. He comes to this realization at the end of the album and show, and it instills him a good measure of peace.
KPSU:: As an electric violinist, I’m always curious about approaches to integrating classical instruments with amplified electric ones. What was the approach used for The Bell Ringer?
Orullian: Love that you play electric violin. I think it’s an incredibly versatile and beautiful instrument. My lead violinist plays one, as well. For me, with The Bell Ringer, I worked to bring in strings and horns and percussive elements in rhythms and note ranges that worked in a complimentary fashion to the guitars and keys. I’m hoping the result is that listeners are able to hear and appreciate each instrument and part for its contribution to the whole.
KPSU: I understand that the music was created independently of the stage show. How did the stage show develop?
Orullian: I’d always envisioned the music as a stage production. What I couldn’t know was whether others would like the music. So, I took the leap last year and pulled together the band and staged a one-night engagement to get some real-world feedback. The show gave me confidence to keep going, and I was fortunate enough on the success of the first show to land William Morris Endeavor as a booking agent. They loved the story and music, and we’re working to try and develop the show further. This year, we’re doing four shows, just trying to grow and build as best we can.
KPSU: Is The Bell Ringer expected to be an annual production?
Orullian: That’s my hope. I’d love if it could become something of a yearly tradition for people. Of course, I’ve more stories and songs to write. So, with some luck and hard work, I’m hoping The Bell Ringer will gain ground and I’ll be able to do more writing.
KPSU: What do you consider to be the most important message in The Bell Ringer?
Orullian: I’d say the most important message is to give of yourself. Often times the most needful thing is someone to share your burden, whether that’s to listen, to defend, to commiserate, or even laugh or talk or reminisce. Somewhere there are people who need what only you can give them. Again, I understand that this may come off as a bit saccharine, and I get it. But I don’t think that makes it any less true. My Bell Ringer had gone through an awful litany of tragedies, only to become the exact right person to visit a dying child, dance with an aging widow, encourage a mournful soldier, and give strength to a homeless boy. He didn’t have money or means. But he had strength enough to stand in the cold, give them his time and attention, and his understanding.
The Bell Ringer follows in the tradition of Christmas morality plays with a number of simplified characters representing economic disadvantage, the nature of giving, and holiday grumps. For those who do not celebrate that particular holiday, The Bell Ringer may contribute to the feeling of unwelcome that stems from its ubiquity in American society, as the production decidedly revolves around the Christian holiday. For the Christmas ambivalent and particularly the enthusiastic, the effect is one that attempts to embolden a sense of community that endures beyond brief holiday periods. The intended moral of selflessness certainly makes its way to the audience, but more than self-worth, The Bell Ringer preaches the worth of others and the importance of basic human dignity. The music itself is a delightful blend of classical themes and enough overdrive to sate hard rock and traditional metal enthusiasts.
The Bell Ringer makes for an affordable, captivating spectacle for anyone seeking live, Christmas-themed entertainment over the Winter break. The technical aspects of the production are highly worthwhile and the musicianship is sure to excite fans of rock, metal, and their fusion with classical instrumentation. Though atheists and non-Christians may find parts of the production alienating, the Christmas ambivalent and particularly the enthusiastic can expect a heavy dose of classic Christmastime indulgence.
The Bell Ringer is playing a one-night engagement in Portland at the Aladdin Theater on 21 December. A portion of the proceeds from album and ticket sales will support the Toys for Tots Literacy Program. The album can be previewed at www.symphonynorth.com