We live in the most operatic century since the Renaissance; witness such current operas on 20th-century subjects as "Nixon in China," "Valentino's Dream," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "A View From the Bridge" (recently premiered in Chicago) and "The Great Gatsby," to be premiered next month in New York.

One of the safest bets you can make these days is that early in the next millennium somebody will produce an opera with a title like "Bill and Monica." Reportedly, several composers are already at work on the subject, and I can hardly wait to see how some of the key scenes will be staged. I see Jerry Hadley and (making her operatic debut) Madonna in the title roles. Sam Ramey (when he gets tired of diabolical roles) is a natural for Ken Starr.

Perhaps because our daily headlines are so operatic--i.e., intensely emotional, short on logic and full of extreme characters and situations--opera is our fastest-growing form of classical music, in terms of notable new compositions and audience size. It is the only classical genre whose audience is increasing in size and going down in median age. But there is one problem: The costs of production and, inevitably, the price of tickets are growing even more rapidly than the audience.

There are several answers to the problem. One is recordings on compact disc, videotape or DVD. Recordings in any of these media generally cost less than a good seat in a major opera house; and they give you a chance to go back at leisure and grow familiar with the exotic material. But there is nothing like being in the place where it is happening; a reasonably good live performance has an impact unavailable on even an outstanding recording.

This brings us to the thoroughly enjoyable though hardly flawless opera production I attended Saturday night in the Hartke Theatre of Catholic University: "Die Fledermaus" by Johann Strauss Jr., conducted by Piotr Gajewski with singers and orchestra from the university's Benjamin T. Rome School of Music.

The sets, costumes and lighting--not as lavish as what you would see at the Metropolitan Opera or the Vienna Staatsoper, but well-styled and clearly suited to their purpose--were the work of students.

The orchestra numbered about three dozen players and did not produce the sumptuous, velvet sound I have heard in some other productions, but it was precise and well-trained and it did justice to the music--wall-to-wall great melodies.

Members of the chorus (very busy in Act II, not onstage in Acts I and III) were more impressive musically than theatrically; they tended to stand still while singing, though they did a fair approximation of party guests chatting and sipping champagne the rest of the time. These are, of course, new arrivals in the complex world of operatic performance--apprentices learning a new discipline, and when that is taken into consideration, their work was impressive.

If I had paid more than $100 for my ticket, I would have expected a more Viennese atmosphere. With a ticket costing less than one-fifth that amount, I was deeply impressed by how well they performed. So, judging by the applause, was the rest of the audience, a much younger and more enthusiastic group, on the average, less elegantly dressed and obviously less affluent than those I see at opera intermissions at the Kennedy Center.

The production had two casts. On the night I attended, the show was stolen (as often happens in this work) by the maid Adele--sung with pert stage presence, apt expressiveness and brilliant coloratura by Susannah Stayter, who made a strong impression in the well-known "Laughing Song."

Monica Williams gracefully made the transition from Viennese hausfrau in Act I to pseudo-Hungarian countess in Act II and gave a show-stopping performance of the czardas.

Pablo Henrich met both the comic and vocal challenges in the role of the tenor Alfredo, and other roles were capably filled by Rolando-Michael Sanz, Pablo Murcia, Aaron Silverman and Eduardo Castro.

This production was part of the extensive season of affordable and imaginatively produced operas available each season on local university campuses. The future of the art is well-served here, not only in training performers but in developing audiences.