NATURE STRIKES like lightning: a roll of the genetic dice, and voila !, a tenor or a soprano who will drive insane a whole generation of otherwise rational music-lovers. The genetic odds being what they are, it is relatively seldom that an operatic voice of truly international claliber is lodged in the same body with a logical mind, an ability to plausibly project a dramatic role and a grasp of the art of music (which differs significantly from the ability to produce pretty sounds). And so we tend to treasure those who have even a fair fraction of all these qualities -- and that takes care, in most cases,of any possible genetic tendencies toweard humility.

Samuel Johnson described opera as "an exotick and irrational entertainment" -- though it should perhaps be added that some of the best things in life are both exotic and irrational. In Aria , Brown Meggs explores this special self-contained world -- its exoticism and irrationality -- with a thoroughness and a stylistic flair that call to mind some of opera's finest moments. His plot is as intricate as that of La forza del destino , his cast comparable in size to that of the Ring cycle, his range of action -- from orgy to acrid philosophizing -- comparable to that of Moses und Arn . Someone should set it to music, making it a true roman a clef .

The subject of Aria is the effort of a recording executive named Harry Chapin to produce a recording of Verdi's Otello . By the end of the novel, all the principal singers, the orchestra and the conductor have been changed from those originally planned; the quality of the performance is completely altered; Harry's career has been destroyed and rehabilitated; he has suffered a stroke, and run through comic, dramatic and erotic scenes with a handful of women (all of whom seem to have an uncommon tendency to scold and nag), and readers have been given a very thorough survey of the music and recording indurstries.

The plot, following Harry's itinerary, wanders widely on two continents and also passes an interlude on a yacht in the Mediterranean; arranging an opera recording with an international cast is a footloose sort of job. Besides the singers, the novel's characters include a wide array of executives, technicians, music fans and hangers-on, as well as pianists and non-singing musicians. But the singers are the chief fascination, all (quite realistically) larger-than-life and totally dissimilar except for their vanity.

At the top of the cast is Edith Cavalieri, an aging soprano who has lost her voice but not her temperament, who thinks her vocal problems can be solved by switching from Italian to German repertoire or recording a pop album, who breaks her contract and compounds the offense by threatening to sue her employers. In the secondary soprano role, Didi del Campo has enhanced her vocal assets by singing a nude scene onstage, posing for Playboy and marrying a millionaire. The primo tenore is Ezekiel Laframboise -- young, gifted and black, who is sytematyically destroying a great tenor voice by overusing it in the wrong roles. And for Iago, Benno Toggi, clearly a great singer but one who has not sung in years -- he has been in prison because of his unfortunate penchant for small boys.

Even without the complications of an Italian musicians' union or the special bureaucracy of a business conglomerate that would like to produce records in the same simple, profitable way it produces snowmobiles or ping pong balls, this cast of characters is material enough for a suspenseful, tumultuous novel, and Meggs has exploited it to the fullest.

At best, this cast is an unlikely crew for the creation of enduring beauty, but the process by which they are whipped into doing just that is a fascinating one, chronicled here in rich detail. The author's knowledge of the field is extensive and deep, though not quite flawless (he attributes a music critic to L'Osservatore Romano , which doesn't concern itself with such mundane matters). More important, he has obviously studied the curious habits of operatic singers with the love of an enthusiast and the cool, critical eye of a detached observer. The result is a splendidly vivied, comic and often harrowing group portrait, which seems most improbable when it is closest to truth.