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Composer's epic obsession sees revival of rock opera

AFTER the book and the film comes the concept album. It is a joke that has not been heard much in the last 10 years as rock operas went out of fashion in the Eighties. But next week sees the release of an epic rock opera, Spartacus, on double compact disc.

Whether or not the concept attracts the record-buying public in the Nineties remains to be seen. Without doubt it has obsessed its creator and composer, Jeff Wayne. For 12 years Mr Wayne has made Spartacus his raison d'etre, becoming in that period one of the world's greatest experts on the gladiator rebel.

Next to the recording studio in his own collonaded villa in the Hertfordshire countryside are shelves of material on Spartacus, collected from museums around the world, and 8,000 photocopies of material too precious for the museums to release. For three of those years he had a Latin speaking assistant to translate.

Mr Wayne, whose last venture - another concept album, War Of The Worlds by H G Wells - sold 4 million copies, works surrounded by Spartacus paraphernalia, books, film posters, documents, and maps of ancient Rome made by himself and his assistant after extensive researches.

'We contacted museums all over the world and embassies of all the relevant countries including Bulgaria which was Thrace, where Spartacus was born,' Mr Wayne said. 'We found that much of the history was written from the Roman side and tended to expunge the story of Spartacus because his was the slave revolt which came closest to defeating the Roman army. The film was inaccurate because it showed Spartacus crucified. In fact he fell in battle and his body was never recovered. But 6,000 of his forces were crucified, all the way from the gates of Rome to Capua.

'I became fascinated, learning so much. For example, a Roman amphitheatre held a maximum of 20,000 people. It was much more like Wimbledon than Wembley Stadium. Even the Colosseum only held 50,000.'

The making of Spartacus has been a fraught journey. Two of the librettists died. One was Mr Wayne's stepmother who died of cancer; another died of a brain tumour; and a third, the screenwright and playwright Robert Bolt, parted company by mutual agreement. However, Anthony Hopkins was signed to narrate at a price that would not have been possible after he won an Oscar for Silence of the Lambs.

Changes in record company personnel also complicated proceedings; but now the record company Columbia aims to show that concept albums can still sell. The company is hedging its bets, however. Spartacus will also be available as a remix for dance clubs. These days, one cannot afford to ignore any possible audience.

(Photograph omitted)