Waters, known for his work in the English rock band Pink Floyd, was approached by friends Étienne Roda-Gil and his wife Nadine Delahaye in 1987, and asked to set their libretto to music. The initial version was completed and recorded by the end of 1988. After hearing it, François Mitterrand was suitably impressed and urged the Paris Opera to stage it for the bicentennial of the revolution the following July. The opera directors, however, were resistant, according to Waters, because "I was English, and I had been in a rock group." Starting in 1989, Waters rewrote the libretto in English.
Ça Ira has received mixed reviews. The biggest criticisms were that the opera is too narrative, which makes staging very difficult – and, as a result, disrupts the flow of the piece. Others have complained that the score is too conventional and that Waters should have taken more risks with it.
The first time any part of Ça Ira was heard in public was on 16 October 2002 when the Overture was performed live at the Royal Albert Hall in London by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, during a benefit gala for the Countryside Alliance.
The next public airing (not a live performance, but a recording played through a sound system) took place in Malta on 1 May 2004, the night that Malta entered the European Union. An approximately 15-minute long excerpt was heard by 80,000 people present at the waterfront of the Grand Harbour. The music was accompanied by a light show by Gert Hoff.
The official premiere took place in Rome on 17 November 2005, in front of a sold-out crowd, and was followed the next evening by another performance. Both shows were praised for the high quality of music, vocal performances, and sound. The choir, orchestra, and soloists were complemented by a projection screen backdrop which displayed images (some photographed by Mark Holthusen) helping to tell the story.
A full operatic performance took place on 25 August 2006 in Poznań, Poland, and was televised live on Poland's TVP. The project involved the same number of musicians from the concert performances in addition to more than 200 dancers from the Great Theatre in Poznań. There were also period elements of stage design (such as horses, carriages and war scenes with soldiers and stunt performers) and full costumes. Over 500 artists were involved, and the production reportedly cost in excess of €2 million. Performances were held in Kiev on 16 December, and at the Poznań Opera House on 30 and 31 December 2006.
The 2005 release was available in three formats:
A three-disc set with regular CD and Super Audio (SACD) stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound versions. Disc 3 was a DVD with a 55-minute documentary by Adrian Maben, showing Waters at work on the opera. This also included a 60-page book with libretto and credits, and illustrations by Nadine Roda-Gil.
A two-disc set with regular audio CDs, including libretto and illustrations in CD-ROM format.
A two-disc set in the original French.
The album spent 14 weeks on Billboard's Classical Chart in the United States and peaked at number 5.