Robert Merrill as a Harold Robbins?

Well, that's the way he put it this week while discussing "The Divas," a pulsating chronical of amours offstage in the world of opera. Writing fiction is a new role for the veteran baritone Merrill and he is positively reveling in it.

"You know, the publisher is Simon and Schuster and they handle Harold Robbins, too. They are very serious about this book. already things are in the works for movie and television rights," says the irrepressible Merrill as he downs his breakfast.

One can hardly argue with the author that the novel resembles Robbins. The effect is not so much erotic as sexually atheltic. And one also can see why television might be interested, because there is enough action, in several senses of the world, to keep a series going for quite some time.

Gloria and Elizabeth and Carla and Paolo and Roberto and Roger and others spend page after page after page doing, or getting ready to do, just about everything you can think of in multiples of two or more. Additionally advantageoue for media adaptation, "everything" is written suggestively" rather than explicitly.

There is no effort to conceal this commercialism by Merrill who at 60 recently concluded a remarkable 31 year as a leading baritone at the Metropolitan and still does "40 or 50 concerts a year. I set a record at the Met, about 700 performances." So if anyone knows what goes on backstage, he should.

The catalyst for the plot is the decision by a fourth television network, MBC, that ABC's NFL Monday Night Football is unbeatable, so they might as well gain prestige by counterprogramming with Monday Night at the Opera.

If the imaginations of Merrill and his co-author, Fred Jarvis, fly fairly free in the narrative, the subject of stardom and what it can do to the personality is something Merrill is dead serious about, "whether in opera, the stage or movies."

Banging his fist upon the book, Merrill utters, about his three female protagnoists and singers like them, "These poor dames are sad. You fly through life and when it's over, there's not much there. They build their lives around their careers. It's tragic."

"Look at the price Callas paid for a great career.I understand she was very lonely, particularly after the Onassis affair. Di Stefano told me she would call him in Rome from her Paris apartment at 3 in the morning just for company.

"The most important thing is to organize your career around your life. That's what I've tried to do. And, among the divas, look at Sills. She's managed to lead a normal, very happy life. She's right to retire now. And she was smart to plan a second career as head of the New York City Opera. She's bright and she's going to be good at it."

Asked if, at about 10 years older than Sills, he would like to follow the same executive course as hers. Merrill seems a bit evasive. "Well. Maybe in a few years." But a few years later would probably be too late to take on such a job, by any known precedent.

He is still the robust man with the stamina that built his record-making career at the Met. He strikes one as an enormously engaging person - the sort you would like to trade tales with over a few beers in the evening. Aside from opera, his lifelong passion has been baseball, and one suspects that he would rather be at the ballpark than running a bureaucracy.

"Divas" is no literary masterpiece, but that doesn't seem to be what Merrill wants. It is a new outlet for the energies that have made him outlast virtually all of his colleagues at the Met.

Writing a fairly racy book is part of the same pattern as his increasingly frequent appearances on, say, the "Tonight" show. It is not unlike where he started with the weekly Robert Merrill NBC radio show every Sunday afternoon in the late '40s, on which he sang everything from the latest hits to Verdi.

"One reason singers often end up such unhappy people is that opera is the toughest of all the arts," he says. "The stress is enormous. That's the reason I gradually phased out as I got older.

"My friend and fellow baritone Leonard Warren was only four years older than I. But he was vulnerable. He was very intense and had high blood pressure. Sometimes it got up to 300. And the eventual result was that awful night at the Met when he keeled over dead in the middle of a performance of 'Forza del Destino.' Good Lord, he was only about 50.

"But of course the worst one for me was the night out in Michigan when Richard Tucker and I were sharing a concert - you know, Richard and I toured together all the time singing arias and duets - and he just suddenly fell to the floor, dead.

"After retirement some singers lead very sad lives. For years they are lionized, and then you lose your voice and you are forgotten. I was in Dallas when Lily Pons died - that dear lady. She had moved to Dallas after her career ended. She was an old person and she had no one. Her fans had long since forgotten her. There was an auction sale and people came in off the streets who had probably never heard an opera in their lives and grabbed up some of her precious things. It made me sick to see it."

Merrill has sung virtually all the French and Italian major baritone roles, including Germont in "Traviata" 69 times and Escamillo in "Carmen" 53 times. He is asked how he thinks opera has changed over the span of his career.

"The character is different," he says, "particularly because of the increased power of the stage director. Toscanini said that opera is in the heart and in the throat.You don't go out of the opera house whistling the scenery, you know. Two of the best performances I was ever in were the 'Traviata' and 'Masked Ball' under Toscanini, which were done in concert. They're both on record. Just listen to them."

This is Merrill's third book. The first two were autobiographical. "But I've always had an ambition to write a novel. We started about three years ago. Fred did much of the writing, but all the characters are mine."

Merrill admits that his book's characters are based on the lives of singers he has known. The three main characters - Gloria January, Elizabeth Anders and Carla Scaralatti - are "picked from real life, though to some extent they are composites." A questioner speculated on who the principal models for Gloria and Carla might be, and Merrill was noncommittal.

The names of the characters are ingenious indeed. Merrill was responsible for the male ones and Jarvis for the females ones. "I would sit on planes making lists of alternate names, and people would think I was nuts," recalls Merrill.

"Why not write about male prima donnas instead, Merrill is asked. "That's coming next," Merrill replies." It's sort of swimming around in my head now and we ought to have it in hand in about a year and a half."

Meanwhile, he is trying to pin down for the Guinness Book of Records the number of times he has sung the National Anthem. "They believe I've set the all-time record. I've don it before at least 150 million people."

Merrill suggests the feeling of moving into a new phase of life by comments about current operatic casting:

"You remember the casts we used to have, and you look now at the casts filled with people you never heard of and may never hear of again and wonder what's happening to oper."

One may call it sour grapes, or one may agree. That's not the point. The clear message is that Robert Merrill is determined not to go into a poststanding-ovatioin slump. He has been an audience favorite for a very long time, and in "Divas" he is being consistent with the way he has always done things; he is playing to the audience. And he seems to show, in his earnestness in discussing the book, that he is doing it without cynicism.