Just mentioning the word gives many people an acute case of the heebie-jeebies. Heavily made-up actors singing strange songs in a foreign language is little inducement to give up on Stevie Wonder or Fleetwood Mac. Especially for a child, learning to appreciate opera, theater, art and poetry is no easy feat.

Eleven years ago - when I was 14 - my family made a musical pilgrimage to New York for the final performance of "Faust" at the old Metroplitan Opera. It was a rare chance to witness history being made, said my father. I fidgeted. He snoozed.

If only we had seen the New American Opera Theater's "Price of Fettucime" instead of "Faust"!

For openers, in a recent performance the singers came out in shirts with their respective voice parts, basso, soprano, tenor, mezzo, etc. emblazoned on their chests. They sang an explanation of the musical forms and conventions of Grand Opera. It also helps for an opera to be short, dramatic and, best of all, sung in English. A mishmash of virtually every opera written with a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan thrown in, "Fettucine" also provided double entendres witty enough to keep the growups awake.

If only there'd been a program designed to introduce a kid like me to opera and other arts "painlessly," without fear.

Take heart, young people.

The Kennedy Center knows that most of the classic are designed for adults and not you. Now in its second season, its Children's Art Series regularly presents a variety of audiences, geared to make even the most obscure opera or dance understandable.

With a little help from some friends, namely funding from foundations, the Kennedy Center's Alliance for Arts Education commissions new works from young professional groups throughtout the country. What's more, it is establishing children's theater as a serious art form at an afford able price. Most performance are free.

Until recently, children's theater was generally regarded as the dumping bucket of the performing arts. Scripts were written by minor playwrights; actors who couldn't make it anywhere else settled for kiddie shows. Most children have limited attention spans and can't sit still for long. They quickly get restless if the play is dull. Instead of creating shows with this in mind, playwrights wrote abbreviated versions of adult shows.

"A good children's performance holds an adult's attention as well." says Alliance for Arts Education director Jack Kukuk. "Many actors prefer young audiences. They are more challenging and rewarding than an adult audience. Kids react honestly and you know if the shows aren't good."

Children's theater - or any arts performance - must, Kukuk says, have a central theme. Harmony, rhythm, tone and color all play important parts in composition. Young people don't need expensive and complicated props to hold their attention; the play and acting just have to be good.

Kids don't need to see fairytale plots all the time and many scripts now deal with current topics - as in the mid-November energy show "Watt Went Wrong?" or the sociology and history wrapped in song form with the upcoming show of Bluegrass Music of Appalachia performed by the McLain Family Band.

Saturday the Teatro de los Puppets performs "Olvera Street Fiesta," a bilingual puppet show. It sure beats learning about Central and South American customs through a textbook.

A word of warning: Adults are not admitted unless accompanied by a child. The Children's Art Series is for kids. For the over-aged who need a good introduction to the arts, take my advice: Borrow a kid.