Is opera fading out in Europe, but at its peak in the United States?

Here's one man who thinks so, and he should know.He's Giancarlo del Monaco. In the 1992-93 season, he made his debut as a director at the Metropolitan Opera where his father, Italian tenor Mario del Monaco, had many triumphs from 1950 to '59.

Opera sets are often realistic in America, he says, and far-out in Europe. "I think the cycle of opera is finishing in Europe," he says. "I think, in Europe, in the next 50 years, half the theaters are going to close. When something is finishing, it enters into decadence.

"Opera is in the middle of an expansion in America. So the style of Europe cannot be the style of America."

Del Monaco made his Met debut with "The Girl of the Golden West." In 1993-94, he staged "Stiffelio." The public, critics and the Met's management liked what they saw.

Now the Met has hired del Monaco back for two of this season's four new productions. His "Madama Butterfly" arrived on Dec. 1 and his "Simon Boccanegra" comes on Jan. 19.

Del Monaco, who says he was "genetically programmed for opera," aims to make operas believable. "I like to be true, so the singers forget they are singing and have the feeling they're telling a real story," he says. "And the public believes what is going on. That's the maximum you can reach."

Del Monaco says that he, as regisseur - which means he directs stage action and is in charge of what is seen - chooses the set and costume designers. "The regisseur decides the big line."

In "Madama Butterfly," del Monaco says, "Puccini composed a very strange American GI. Europe pushes his negative side. Even myself, in Dortmund (Germany) in 1970, I set it in Vietnam. I did `Miss Saigon' 20 years early."

("Miss Saigon," based on the plot of "Madama Butterfly," opened on Broadway in 1991.)

"I set `La Forza del Destino' in the 1937 Spanish Civil War," del Monaco says. "I politicized `Tosca' in three epochs for the three acts - 1800, the 1848 revolution and 1943 with Germans in Rome. The politics changed but the dictator, Scarpia, is always there."

But del Monaco has turned away from such operatic "interpretations."

"Now I like a precise, realistic way of doing theater, historically very correct and exact," he says. "If I stay always the same, it would be boring. I think my career has been long because of changing. I see my colleagues disappear. They never had the courage to renew themselves."

In his youth, del Monaco studied piano, trumpet and singing, the latter with his father, who sang his most famous role, "Otello," 427 times.

"I think I have a good voice," he says.

But, he says, "I never had the interest to sing. First, it is impossible to be better than my father. He was one of the biggest in the history of singing. Second, because of my point of view. I like to think of the big picture and tell stories. Stories involve many persons."

By the time he was 14, del Monaco says, "I had more than 120 operas in my brain, note by note. Now I have more than 180 operas memorized. I remember when I was at school, everybody was listening to Elvis and Paul Anka. OK, I listened to that. I had my opera records and my scores in my room. It was my hobby.

Del Monaco says it's also important to have a good relationship with technicians and artists. A regisseur may have good ideas but technicians and singers make them live.

He speaks five languages and calls himself "an Italian with a German technique." Now 50, he lived in Italy eight years, studied in Switzerland for 12 and has lived in Germany for 30. He has been general director of the Bonn Opera since 1992.

In Germany and Vienna, Austria, del Monaco worked under Gunther Rennert, Wieland Wagner and Walter Felsenstein. "I'm happy I kept my personality," he says. "It is possible to lose your personality when you work with great teachers. I kept my Italian fantasy, with German technique, and survived.

"And sometimes I learned from no success. There is a German proverb, `What doesn't kill me makes me stronger.' My divorce was there. My father died. My mother became sick with cancer. I had been a difficult child; I liked to sail against the wind. My mother had lots of patience with me. She said, `If we get you through, you make a good artist.'

"I have a fighting character. I decided to use my painful experiences and transform them into inspiration for the stage."

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Del Monaco's mother was a soprano. His first wife was a German dancer. His second wife, soprano Marisa Vitali, is South African. His brother is general manager of an opera company in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia. His daughter Stella, 17, wants to study acting. His infant daughter Fedora "makes more noise than all the family."

Now he is writing a book about his father. In it he'll tell about his hiring at the Met.

When Rudolf Bing came to San Francisco in 1950 to hear the elder del Monaco sing with Renata Tebaldi, he offered him $1,000 a week. Del Monaco said his price was $1,100 a performance.

But he offered to sing a performance for free at the Met. Bing chose `Manon Lescaut' and gave him a matinee for children. At the end, the chorus carried him off on their shoulders, and Bing OK'd $1,100 a performance.

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