Wednesday in the Park with Opera: Most operas used to be about people, real or imaginary, who lived in distant times and places. That has been changing, and on "Great Performances" Wednesday night (Channel 26, 9 p.m.), the trend reaches a peak with three operas set in New York City today. This production, merging the talents of three young composers and three acclaimed playwrights, has as much impact theatrically as it does musically. Although the singing is in English, subtitles are provided, clarifying and intensifying the dramatic value.

Collectively titled "Central Park," the three operas are set in that enormous and fascinating piece of Manhattan real estate. In the background are people throwing Frisbees and swooping on Rollerblades, pushing baby carriages, walking dogs, wheeling and dealing on cell phones, selling hot dogs; young lovers quarreling, panhandlers begging. The three little operas--"The Festival of Regrets," "Strawberry Fields" and "The Food of Love" give a fine sampling of the kind of people and activities you are likely to encounter there.

Among many good performers, two who stand out are mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle and soprano Lauren Flanigan. In "Festival of Regrets," by composer Deborah Drattell and playwright Wendy Wasserstein, they play a mother and daughter in a family drama of alienation and reconciliation.

In the witty and poignant "Strawberry Fields," by composer Michael Torke and playwright A.R. Gurney, Castle performs brilliantly as an old woman who, losing touch with reality, believes that a particular park bench is her reserved seat in an opera house and that incidents in the passing scene are a series of operas. A homeless beggar is "called German expressionism," she says, giving him money. "I don't like it, but I suppose I should support it." Her reaction to a family quarrel: "This is called modern opera. Very anxious and intense."

That description fits the final work in the trilogy, "The Food of Love," by composer Robert Beaser and playwright Terrence McNally. Flanigan portrays a homeless mother trying to get help for her infant from a series of self-absorbed New Yorkers (including a yuppie couple with reflectors under their chins who are "working on their tans"). The result combines barbed satire with heartbreaking melodrama.

Resident: Stephen Paulus, one of America's most productive and respected composers with more than 200 works to his credit, will spend two weeks with the Annapolis Symphony next season as part of "Music Alive--Composers and Orchestras Together," a new program sponsored jointly by the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer for the development and promotion of contemporary orchestral music.

Paulus will collaborate with a group of seventh-to-ninth-graders to create a 10-minute work that will be performed by the orchestra. He will also work with local musicians and help the orchestra select artists and material for future programs. The Annapolis Symphony (one of eight orchestras chosen for the first year of the nationwide program) plans to commission a new work every two or three years.

Meanwhile in California, Gisele Ben-Dor, former music director of the Annapolis Symphony and now music director of the Santa Barbara Symphony, will direct a four-day festival next weekend celebrating the centennial of the great Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. Internationally noted as an expert on Latin American music, Ben-Dor has conducted a recording of music by Revueltas on the Conifer label and two recordings of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera for Koch International, working with the Santa Barbara Symphony, London Symphony, English Chamber Orchestra and Israel Chamber Orchestra.

Gala: A performance of Tchaikovsky's rarely heard opera "Iolanta," presented by the American Opera Company of New York, will be the highlight of a black-tie gala at the Russian Embassy on Feb. 4, with a conductor (Robert F. Luther) and singers (soprano Oleksandra Hrabova, bass Mikhail Krutikov, tenor Vadim Zaplechny, baritone Igor Tarasov) from the Bolshoi, St. Petersburg and other Russian opera companies. Slavic Mosaic, a Washington vocal ensemble, will be the chorus in a fully staged production, with stage direction by Theodore Mann, co-founder of New York's Circle in the Square Theatre. The event, which will include a champagne reception, dinner and dancing, is the first in a series of planned gala embassy opera evenings. For further information, phone 703-904-6808 or 212-594-1839.

Postponement: The recital and master class by pianist Horacio Gutierrez, planned for last week at Catholic University, had to be postponed because of a hand injury. The recital has been rescheduled for 8 p.m. Feb. 7 in the university's Ward Recital Hall. The master class will be given at 2 p.m. Feb. 8.

Premieres: This is a vintage month for premieres in Washington. Besides Richard Danielpour's "Voices of Remembrance" and Michael Kamen's "The New Moon in the Old Moon's Arms," both commissioned by the National Symphony and premiered last week, we will have the world premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage's "True Life Stories," commissioned by the Washington Performing Arts Society, performed by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes Jan. 22 in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall; the premiere of "Anne Frank" for cello and piano by Lukas Foss, which took place Thursday at the Holocaust Museum; and the Washington premiere of Susan Botti's "Within Darkness," played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Jan. 30 in the Terrace Theater.

Fanfares: Those who enjoyed Joan Tower's "Tambor" on last week's NSO program will want to hear her five "Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman" and Concerto for Orchestra, music of great vigor and vivid colors, conducted by Marin Alsop on Koch International.

Debuts: Yuri Temirkanov will conduct his inaugural concert as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Jan. 20 in the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The young, Berlin-based Artemis Quartet, winner of several prestigious European competitions, will make its Washington debut Feb. 3 at the Library of Congress.

New Waves: With a base of operations in Norfolk, it makes sense that the Virginia Symphony and music director JoAnn Falletta are making a specialty of music about the ocean. One such piece, Frank Bridge's "The Sea," will be on the program when the group performs Wednesday at the Kennedy Center. Others by Bax, Ibert, Britten, Glazunov and Mendelssohn are on "Seascapes," an ingeniously programmed CD issued by the orchestra.

Anniversary: This month, Peter Allen celebrates his 25th anniversary as the host of the Texaco-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Broadcasts. Allen's first Met broadcast was on Jan 4, 1975, 24 hours after his predecessor, Milton Cross, died of a heart attack.