If I had to deal with another episode of this sort, one which deals with an aspect of Italian public life, I'd think it over a hundred times and probably I wouldn't do it again."

This is the apparently sadder-but-wiser opinion of Judge Nino Fico, the young Roman magistrate who made headlines late in May when he issued orders to have 34 people, including several key personalities in the Italian opera world, jailed on charges of corruption, bribery and fraud.

The arrests came as the result of a three-year investigation into the hiring practices of Italy's 13 state-funded opera houses set off largely by claims from several Italian singers that the country's "opera mafia" had kept their careers from blooming and, in addition, had cost them a lot of extra money.

Soprano Silvia Sebastianti, baritone Walter Alberti and a group of other Italian opera singers who are represented by Sebastiani's lawyer husband, Umberto, have accused opera houses here of working through theater agencies, banned by a 1967 law, which systematically exort kickbacks from singers seeking booking.

The finger-pointing singers have been described by music critics here as mediocre performers disappointed by poor reviews and unsatisfactory bookings.

Nevertheless, their complaints were taken seriously by the 39-year-old Fico, who was later accused of seeking publicity with his unprecedented orders to cart men like Gioacchino-lanza-Tomasi, director of Venice's La Fenice, and Francesco Siciliani of Rome's "Accademia di Santa Cecilia" off to jail, where they remained for the first few days of June before being released on bail.

One month later, it's not that Judge Fico has decided that his suspicions about the existence of massive irregularities in the hiring practices of Italy's opera houses were unfounded. But it was his first experience in dealing with a sector in which, he says, abnormalities are accepted as the norm, the illegal is habitual and deals are a daily fact of life.

Fico's investigation is continuing and some of those arrested and the released may eventually come to trial. But the most shocking aspect to come out of what is being dubbed "the great opera scandal" is that by its own negligence the Italian government has forced the director and employes of Italy's state-subsidized opera houses to choose between doing their jobs or breaking the law.

Among those jailed in the so-called scandal were the superintendent of the San Carlo Opera in Naples, the director of the Nervi Ballet Festival, conductor Nino Bonavolonta, the former artistic director of Catania's "Massimo Bellini Theatre," the secretary general of the Venice Biennale, who until 1975 was superintendent of "La Fenice," several minor officials or employers of "La Scala" and the "Opera di Roma" and a handful of theater agents.

The arrests set off a barrage of protests from the Italian and European music world, with Munich conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch swearing he would not perform again in Italy if the accused were not rehabilitated, and Maestro Gianandrea Gavezzani promising loudly that he would not return to the conductor's podium until the prisoners were released from jail.

Soprano Renata Scotto said the fault was the government's which in 11 years has failed to set up a state booking agency provided for by the 1967 law which made all "mediation," even if gratuitous, illegal.

Those jailed "are the people who have made Italian opera," said Scotto, who said she was "indignant" about the arrests. Flutist Saverino Gazzelloni agreed. "Throwing men of culture into jail will only have the effect, in so delicate a moment in the life of the countryM, of agitating the souls and professional lives of Italy's artists," he said.

"Theatrical agents are a necessary evil," he said. "Speaking for myself, if I hadn't had the help of agents, I would probably be unknown to a large part of the public I have today."

In the next scene in the current melodrama, Italy's politicians got into the act, each with his own axe to grind.

Representatives of the left-wing administrations that now govern most major Italian cities hotly defended Communists like Lanza Tomasi and Bussotti, as well as centrists like Siciliani.

The right-wing weekly, "II Borghese," and the far-right "National Democracy" party took the opposite view. "The left is corrupt," they said, "and responsible for the collapse of the Italian lyric theater."

Finally, as the curtain came down on the end of the first act, the "accused" - against whom formal charges have yet to be made - began to trickle out of jail on provisional liberty, an Italian form of moneyless bail.

The hero of the melodrama, Lanza Tomasi - who is also the son of Sicilian Prince Tomasi di Lampedusa of "Leopard" fame - strides to center stage. Rome magistrate Nino Fico, the man who slapped him and his colleagues into jail, is, he says, an honest man.

And alas, under the glow of its spotlights and behind its original scenes and settings, the Italian opera world does conceal "an infamous underbrush of business dealings," exactly what Fico's investigation is all about.

Whether there will be a second act to the present brouhaha is hard to say, since in Italy it is not unusual for scandals to rear their ugly heads and then to disappear quietly into oblivion.

But the fact is that although the arrests of Lanza Tomasi and most of the others seem to have been uncalled for, there is a serious side to this modern-day Italian opera buffa.

This is not the first time, after all, that the Italian government's penchant for doing things halfway has put responsible officials in the ticklish position of choosing between breaking the law or doing their jobs.

After allocating almost $90 million a year for the Italian music world, it may seem strange for the government to present the directors of its most prestigious opera houses of its most unpleasant dilemma. But because a succession of Italy's entertainment ministers have failed to take measures to implement a law passed almost a decade ago, both artisti and opera-house officials here have been deeply embarrassed.

"Artists don't have time to worry about bookings," says critic Paolo Isotta. "Either they study, sing or conduct, or they have to spend all their time, calendar in hand, working out dates for rehearsals, recitals, plane and hotel reservations."

"There is no theater in the East or the West that does without an agency, either private or state-run," says Renata Scotto. Without turning to an agency, Italian opera houses would never be able to hire a foreign singer."

Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, now out of jail, says dealing with agents is unavoidable since most singers have one to handle their affairs. "And do you think getting in touch with Piacido Domingo is easy," he asks. "It isn't. If one wants to contact him it is absolutely necessary to go through an agency that handles his bookings."

Lanza Tomasi, under whose direction the Opera Di Roma has recently begun to gain luster with much-appreciated performances of Mercadante's "II Bravo," Rossim's "Tancredi," and most recently, Hindemiths "Sancta Susanna, points out that the commissions charged by theater agencies hardly can be called kick-backs.

Nevertheless, he admits that here as elsewhere there are unscrupulous agents who milk their clients for money and that the agent's job, in itself, serves to up the fees of artists and, consequently, to increase the deficits of Italy's 13 state-subsidized opera houses.

He thinks a new system, one which would set fixed rates for agents, is needed to reform what one Italian paper recently called Italy's "voice racket." And the "National Association of Opera Houses and Symphony orchestras" (ARELS) recently called for more "rational" legislation governing the sector that would be "coordinated and harmonized with that of other European Community countries.

During a recent parliamentary debate on this issue, the present minister of entertainment, Carlo Pastorino, promised that urgent action would be taken, but no one here is very optimistic. Aside from the fact that nothing was done after magistrate Fico first notified Lanza Tomasi and the othrrs last March that his investigation was picking up steam, it is often said that the primary "cultural" interest of Italy's politicians has always been that of the local spoils system, whereby top managing posts in all city agenies - from hospitals to theaters - are parcelled out among representatives of the most powerful political parties.

For the time being, then, the "accused" are holding their breath and hoping that sooner or later the powers that be will get off their respective sederi .

In the meantime, everyone is looking forward to the coming season, which will include both a "Boris Godunov" and a "Moses" with Nestorenko at "La Scala," Bellini's "I Capuletti e I Montecchi" in both Naples and Rome, several "Manon Lescauts," and at least two productions of Stravinsky's "Career of a Libertine" (Milan and Naples).