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Composer Gian Carlo Menotti: taking opera to people

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''The wonderful thing about it is that we have saved Spoleto, and we are still heroes, we are still the bread of Spoleto because without the festival Spoleto would absolutely go back to its former oblivion.''

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One of the things that makes Spoleto festival artists ''heroes'' is that many perform for about half their regular fee, he says. ''They love going there because they love the idea of knowing they are needed. And that is something that is important today, because people don't realize how important art can be to a community.''

Another reason for the success of both Spoletos, says Menotti, is their opportunity for young artists.

''I'm asked, 'Why don't you invite famous performers?' and I say we don't need them. Why spend all the money for the sacred monsters that will give us no time for rehearsals, and will only sing the usual repertoire? Let us do it with young people. We'll create our stars. Finally I've given them the pride that the audiences in Italy have - the pride of discovering and creating our own stars. And we've created a thousand, beginning from Andy Warhol and (Pinchas) Zuckerman , and Yo-Yo Ma.''

One problem he has had with his American Spoleto is the pressure to include jazz concerts. He banned them in Italy.

''Here it was a shock when they heard that I wanted to ban jazz. I said, after all at the jazz festivals they don't play Beethoven and Brahms and Mozart, so I don't see why we should absolutely include jazz in our programs.''

In addition to directing both festivals, Menotti continues to write and direct his own operas, which involve the artist, he says, ''in looking for what is already there.''

''(The artist) is an explorer in a certain way,'' Menotti says. ''The only thing that interests me in music is to be able to reach into the, let's call it, 'collective unconscious' of what is noblest in the human spirit, the way you find in the music of Mozart and Beethoven and Verdi that wonderful quality that not a note can be changed.

''When you find that quality in music,'' he says, ''then you know it and it's a gift that only God can give you. That's why I give great importance to melody. It's something you feel you have already heard before, something that wakes some sort of memory. James Joyce said it: 'Art is nothing but a form of memory.' ''

One of Mr. Menotti major preoccupations is finding an artistic director to replace himself.

''This kind of successor I have not been able to find because I'd like to get somebody who is equally familiar with Italy and America, somebody who is conversant with all the arts. You know you can get a marvelous musician who would be loved, but who knows nothing about the theater, painting, dance. The same thing is true down the line - a dancer knows nothing about the theater, and so forth....''

Menotti just finished presenting his most recent work, ''Juana La Loca,'' at this year's festival. And now he begins looking for time to finish the opera he has promised for Placido Domingo. ''I also have to finish my opera for Domingo, who is waiting and keeps asking me, 'Where's my opera?' ''