Ambrose Bierce, in his misanthropic little book "The Devil's Dictionary," defined success as "the one unpardonable sin against one's fellows." In those terms, Elizabeth Swados is a sinner of major proportions. At 26, she has already won two Obies (Off-Broadway's equivalent of the Tony) and an Outer Critics Circle Award, and been nominated for a Drama Desk Award. Her unusual musical scores for "The Cherry Orchard," "Agamemnon," "Fragments of a Trilogy" and "The Good Woman of Setzuan" have linked her inextricably with the ater's current wunderkind, Andrei Serban. Logically, her next step would be to join Pel'e and the Muppets' Jim Henson on the American Express Card commercials.

Instead, she is coming to Washington, courtesy of Zelda Fichandler and the Arena Stage. "Nightclub Cantata," conceived, composed and directed by Swados, will open the season at the Kreeger Theater Oct. 12, with previews starting tonight.

"Nightclub Cantata," which opened in New York last January to generally ecstatic notices, is a tapestry of prose and poety interwoven with Swados' music, which includes regae, blues, Hebraic folk chants, calypso, ballands, '50s rock-n-roll and even bird calls. Swados sees it as a breakthrough.

"First, it's actors, not singers, performing music. Second, it's musicians involved in the piece as actors. Third, it works on the theory that music that reaches the guts doesn't have to be soupy or sweet. There's a kind of music that can reach the intelligence and the emotions."

Swados left Bennington College in her senior year to work for Ellen Stewart at Cafe La Mama in New York, one of avant-garde theater's most fertile breeding grounds. When she first met Serban, he was already planning to collaborate with another composer on re-staging "Medea," the first piece in what was to became "Fragments of a Trilogy." "But it didn't work out and he settled for me."

That was in 1972. "Medea" won an Obie and Swados never went back to Bennington. She went, instead, to Europe, then to Africa tostudy primitive ritualistic music.

Her approach to composing is essentially two-sided: "First of all, there's potentially interesting music in almost everything. Ifyou sit and listen to something, it has a rhythm . . . It can be a bird, a rhino, two people arguing in a foreign language, or a poem in English.

"Secondly, people's intense emotions are worth dramatizing. I do it through the sounds people make when these feelings happen. Sometimes these are nonverbal, sometimes poetry, sometimes dialogue."

The nonverbal sounds have become her own special parlor trick. When she was performing in "Cantata" - she nolonger does - her solo turn was "Bird Lament," an astonishing combination of trills and whistles.

"Cantata" arrives in Washington with the New York cast intact. No special material has been added, but Swados calls it "a very political piece even though there's no mention of politics."

As for the title, Swados, says: "It's just exactly what it says. The emotional, one-to-one gut performance feeling; the seeming randomness of the pieces; the rawness, the intensity that gives way to lightness. All that's the nightclub part. The cantata part supplies the magic of musical logic.The builds, tensions, and releases that are the musical why of looking at things give the evening its flow and structure."