ATLANTA -- "I'm kind of a wannabe songwriter," says Michael Ching, general director of Opera Memphis and composer of operas.

If you want to write songs, what better role model than a Nashville, Tenn., stalwart? So Ching's partner for "Out of the Rain" -- the centerpiece of Georgia State's Harrower Summer Opera Workshop -- is Hugh Moffatt, who has supplied songs for Dolly Parton, Alabama, Kathy Mattea and Ronnie Milsap.Not unlike country music, opera deals with raw feelings: pain and loss, love and desire, rage and revenge. Could be that's why Moffatt felt comfortable writing the libretto for "Out of the Rain," a work about the aftermath of AIDS as discovered by a group of high school friends at the memorial service for one of their crowd.

It's Ching and Moffatt's second collaboration but isn't destined to be the last. "It's not exactly a sequel but the second in a series," says Ching, 41. Their "King of the Clouds" (1993) was about a single mother and her son confronting guns and alcoholism.

"Social issues are never context-free," says Ching, which helps the opera team provide a layer of grit to what might otherwise be regarded as sentimentalized social work. Both these pieces, and those to follow, are aimed at teenagers.

Ching is all-Asian by ethnic background, all-American by interests. Three-fourths Chinese and one-fourth Japanese, he says he would have been named Motoyama if not for World War II, when his half-Japanese, half-Chinese father, a resident of Hawaii, felt it prudent to emphasize the Chinese part of his background.

At an early age, Ching decided he wanted to be a composer. He has written "a modest amount" of orchestral pieces, including "The Gathering," which introduces the instruments of the symphony and has been performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

But with mentors such as Robert Ward ("The Crucible"), his teacher at Duke University, and Carlisle Floyd ("Susan-nah"), with whom he worked at Houston Grand Opera, it was no wonder opera beckoned.

Ching worked his way up the job ladder at Miami Opera (now Florida Grand Opera), Virginia Opera in Norfolk, Triangle Opera Theater in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and eventually Memphis, progressing from rehearsal pianist to artistic director.