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SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- As bassist/singer/songwriter for Pink Floyd and in his solo work, Roger Waters has long been known for tackling ambitious projects with grand gestures and meticulous detail.
So it shouldn't surprise that his new opera about the French Revolution was in development longer than the revolution itself.
Waters' mission, like that of the rebels who defied King Louis XVI, was influenced by forces beyond his control. Sitting in the vast, elegantly appointed den of his lakefront Hamptons home, where Louis would have felt quite comfortable, the 61-year-old rocker explains how Ca Ira, billed as his first classical opera, came about.
"In 1987 or '88, Etienne and Nadine came with a manuscript," Waters says, referring to French songwriter Etienne Roda-Gil and his wife, who has since died of leukemia. "It was all handwritten, with illustrations by Nadine. They asked if I would set it to music."
By the end of 1988, a cassette Waters had made found its way to the desk of then-French President Francois Mitterrand, who was sufficiently impressed to suggest that the Paris Opera consider staging it as part of their celebration of the revolution's bicentennial the following July.
"But when push came to shove," Waters says, "I think it stuck in the Gallic craw that a) I was English and b) I had been in a pop group -- though the French are better at allowing movement between disciplines. Then Nadine died, and we put the project on the shelf. I picked it up again in '95."
Ten years later -- this Tuesday, to be exact -- Ca Ira arrives as a double CD. Celebrated bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, soprano Ying Huang and tenor Paul Groves appear on the recording of the three-act opera, which will premiere in Rome Nov. 17.
The novice classical composer based the lyrics on Roda-Gil's original French libretto. "There are elements that were pure invention on my part," Waters says, citing as one example the first scene, in which a young, complacent Marie Antoinette confronts a boy with revolutionary leanings.
Waters initially resisted trying to draw parallels between late 18th-century France and current social conditions. "But then I thought: 'Well, in France back then, you had this rigid, hierarchical structure where the king was considered divinely instructed by God and had absolute power. Then you had the nobility and the clergy, but the majority of people had nothing.'
"That's very much like the situation we have now with some Western civilized nations. I think George (W.) Bush believes that he's operating on a license from the Almighty. And you have a very, very small number of people who control 99% of all the stuff in the world, whereas the rest are like the French peasantry were."
Such frustrations figured into Waters' decision to reunite with his ex-Pink Floyd bandmates in July for Live 8, the mega-concert promoting debt relief in Africa. But don't expect a new Pink Floyd studio project soon; when Waters returns to the pop arena, it will be on his own.
"I've worked on a lot of songs, and I have different ideas about how to put them together," says the artist, whose last rock CD was 1992's Amused to Death. "I have a feeling the ones about political matters will get separated from the ones about love and loss."
Waters also is developing a musical-theater version of Pink Floyd's classic The Wall. And, he notes, the verdict is still out on how Ca Ira will be received by his old fans.
"I'm a bit concerned that some people attached to my work in rock 'n' roll will flock to Rome, but only because it's me," he concedes. "I do like the idea that people could hear the opera and be moved by the content, which is essentially humanitarian, and the melodies and harmonic structure. We'll have to just wait and see."
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