New York — Rock star David Bowie as Abraham Lincoln? Opera star Hildegarde Behrens as Mata Hari and Madame Curie? Celebrated diva Jessye Norman as an ''earth mother'' and the Queen of the Sea?
It's unlikely casting. But no more unlikely than the production itself, or the collaborators behind it.
In about 10 months, Robert Wilson - perhaps the most experimental stage director of our time - will join forces with the Olympic Arts Festival. Together they plan to festoon the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles with a nine-hour theatrical extravaganza based on world and American history.
The title of this ''international opera'' is almost as long and unusual as the show itself - ''the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down.'' The word ''wars'' is plural because it refers to many conflicts through the ages; and ''civil'' is capitalized to bring out the various meanings of the word. Though both Lincoln and Robert E. Lee are major characters, the work is meant as ''a poetic account of the human struggle for survival throughout history,'' ending with ''an affirmation of the brotherhood of man.''
If all goes as planned, the Olympics could take on a new dimension for fans of art and sport alike.
But there's a catch: money. True to its international subject matter, separate sections of ''the CIVIL warS'' are being created in six different countries, with local funding. The cost of presenting them en masse in Los Angeles is estimated at $2 million. Another $500,000 must be raised by Sept. 20 or only a scaled-down version will be feasible.
The show's high budget reflects Wilson's singular status in the arts world. He is that rarity, a deeply radical director who works on a lavish scale. His works are not only daring, but often elaborate. And expensive - especially since he creates them largely during the rehearsal process, working with performers and scenery much as a painter works with oils or a jazz musician with an instrument.
When completed, a typical Wilson show is as unconventional as the process that produced it. Consider his ''Einstein on the Beach,'' due for revival and a national tour next year sponsored by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There is no story in the usual sense, though the stage swarms with people and props. The action moves slowly, with shifting images that look like paintings in motion. The performers project their own personalities as well as the characters they represent. Design is all important, and meaning is left to find its way in through the back door.
Unusual stuff. Yet director Wilson has no interest in courting a small, elite band of admirers. He wants his work available to the widest and most diverse audience possible. Earlier pieces have been presented in such visible venues as Broadway and Lincoln Center, and lately he has turned to video, creating such unconventional TV works as ''Stations'' and ''Deafman Glance.''
The massive ''CIVIL warS'' could give Wilson his most prominent American showcase in years. Yet it is an international project in every sense. Its sections are being born in Rome; Tokyo; Rotterdam; Cologne and Stuttgart, West Germany; and Minneapolis. Workshops have already been completed in most of those cities, and dates have been set for full rehearsals in each location.
When finished, various portions may tour in Europe before coming to Los Angeles - the Rotterdam section, for example, will travel around France for eight weeks - and may play in their native countries after the California presentation. Though the Olympic performances are the focal point for ''the CIVIL warS,'' the ''modules'' of the full production will have lives of their own around the world.
The making of ''the CIVIL warS'' could be as dramatic as the show itself, given the problems of coordinating so large an enterprise. Even now, it isn't certain if some sections will come to fruition and get to Los Angeles. Particular challenges have risen in Tokyo, where a local producer is being sought to help with financial difficulties, and Stuttgart, where the Opera House (a co-producer of one section) will be closed next year.
In other cities, sundry arrangements have been made to meet sundry conditions. German supporters, for example, have formed a nonprofit corporation to help the production, inviting members of the business and political communities. In the United States, the respected Guthrie Theater and Walker Arts Center will co-produce a key part of the work.
Struggling to meet their financial deadlines, Wilson and company are depending on several funding sources. And more is needed, says Applegarth, adding that time pressures make further corporate or foundation grants unlikely. What he now hopes for is an individual donor - with a pocketbook as large as the size and ambition of the show, and a willingness to support a project that will pay more aesthetic than financial dividends.
Wilson is not like the artist Christo, who regards the struggle to create a work as part of the artistic process. Wilson doesn't appear to relish financial or bureaucratic hassles; indeed, he has worked largely in Europe because funding and support have been easier to find than in the United States. Yet money-raising has taken more of his time than artistic matters lately, and no let-up is in sight.
If it does come off as planned, and not in some reduced version, ''the CIVIL warS'' could give Wilson a new momentum with American audiences, perhaps rekindling the enthusiasm that sold out the Metropolitan Opera House performances of ''Einstein on the Beach'' just seven years ago. It could also give important American exposure to such prominent co-workers as the Argentine filmmaker Edgardo Cozarinsky, the British composer Gavin Bryars, and the Japanese actor Hideo Kanze, as well as such Americans as composer Philip Glass and rock musician David Byrne.
The project also has multimedia possibilities: Already in the works are a ''video portrait'' of the production and a ''radio opera'' version. Wilson's sketches for it have been exhibited in several countries, and an ''original cast'' recording is in the talking stage.
What are the prospects for success? Wilson is in Europe and so unavailable for comment, but Applegarth is certain ''the CIVIL warS'' will materialize, either in part or as a whole. Even now, portions are slated for premieres in Rotterdam on Sept. 13; in Cologne on Jan. 19, 1984; in Tokyo on Jan. 23; in Rome on March 22; and in Minneapolis on April 26.
If money can be found to complete all these sections - and bring them to Los Angeles - the curtain will go up there in the Shrine Auditorium on June 6, 1984. Meanwhile, the suspense builds.