Opera singers and their voices have been the chief preoccupation of opera directors and managers since long before that unfortunate day when Rudolf Bing burst out in print, in the now-extinct New York Herald-Tribune, "I an sick and tired of having to deal with singers!" Not long thereafter, Bing, at that time general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, made one of his less-fortunate errors and fired Maria Callas, who was then the most celebrated opera singer in the world.

Yet it sometimes seems as if those who direct the artistic fortunes of opera companies have learned very little if anything about the proper way to handle the possessors of those voices that are the principal reasons for keeping opera houses open.

Now I would not want you, for a moment, to believe the line that ran in last Sunday's New York Daily News, which said, "In short, she has been fired," in speaking of Joan Sutherland. Especially if you saw and heard Miss, now Dame, Joan Sutherland last Monday night live on television in concert from Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. If you caught that program, you know the excellent estate of Sutherland's voice. You also know the wild, nay boundless, raptures she raised in those who were listening to her in that hall. They simply could not shout loud enough, clap hard enough or shower her with flowers enough to demonstrate their mad enthusiasm and their affectionate appreciation of her great art.

No -- Sutherland has not been fired from the Met. But one Met official did take the New story to heart enough to try immediately to counteract its impact. David Reuben, director of press and public relations for the Met, rushed into print in a wire story saying that Sutherland would not appear at the Met next year because of "a scheduling conflict." He added, quite misleadingly, "We do not have long-term contracts with performers; our contracts run season to season."

If you believe that one, just check with Renata Scotto, Placido Domingo or Sherrill Milnes and see precisely what roles they have been promised by the Met for the next several seasons. And while you're at it, ask around and find out who has been signed for opening nights in 1979 and 1980. In an era when opera stars are booked from two to five years in advance for live and recorded performances, opera companies either sign them up well ahead of time or they do not have them.

What actually happended in the case of the Sutherland-Met dispute was put very frankly by the great Australian singer who told the Metropolitan that she would not sing Constanze in Mozart's "Abduction From the Seraglio" next season. Her reasons:

"When the Met asked me to prepare for the role, Richard and I went over it for weeks and weeks, but I discovered I should have done it 15 years ago. Constanze doesn't go above a high D, but it lies much higher than Lucia. I could have made all the notes, but my voice is so much heavier now, I would have had to do some harmful forcing.I finally decided I didn't want to stand on the Met stage with my reputation and appear uncomfortable, so I finally, respectfully, turned the part down."

You will never see a more reasoned or reasonable statement from any singer about the best reason for not singing a proffered role. Sutherland's statement, incidentally, is almost precisely the same one made there several months ago by Ashley Putnam, who is hardly more than half Sutherland's age, and who, like the older star, is making a brilliant reputation as Lucia di Lammermoor. Putnam, after singing several Constanzes here with the Washington Opera, said the was going to give up the pat because it simply lies too high.

Shades of Maria Callas, whom Bing fired because she refused to alternate in Verdi's "Lady Macbeth," a very dark and heavy role, and Verdi's Violetta in "La Traviata," a role demanding lightness and flexibility.

Here were and are singers demonstrating rare intelligence in the handling of their voices, those instruments that they know so well and that they alone can nurture, being punished for being unwilling to use those voices as operatic managements wish.

Beverly Sills is another singer who recently made a decision as wise as those of Callas and Sutherland. She had been cast for the leading role in Dominick Argento's new opera, "Miss Havisham's Fire," which is to have its world premiere at the New York City Opera in March. But Sills withdrew from the part, saying that whereas she had expected her voice to darken and become heavier with the years (as Sutherland's has), she found that she was still at her best in lighter, more flexible roles.

Sills added that she believes the new Argento opera is a powerful, dramatic work, and she wanted to be sure it had every chance of success; to assure that, she preferred to relinquish the role to Rita Shane.

These are singers who know how to preserve their voices and how best to use them to achieve their highest artistic goals. Yet opera companies around the world still tend to hire and misuse singers. The Met has long been called the home of three-year wonders, tenors who are singned to sing roles far too heavy for them and who, therefore, last about three years before they have burned themselves out prematurely.

Reuben says, "We are in negotiations with Miss Sutherland for future years. There's been no rift. We are talking." And Sutherland very well may sing with the Met again. But don't count on it. Because she also was to have sung next season in Rossini's "Semiramide" in a new production with MarilynHorne, and as the starring figure in a much-anticipated new production of "The Merry Widow," All these are now out the window, at least for next season. Sutherland said frankly, "I love singing at the Met, but now, for the first time, they have hurt me."

It took Rudolf Bing seven years to get Maria Callas back to the Met, years in which her once-great voice lost much of its beauty and power. Joan Sutherland is coming up to her 53rd birthday. Unless the Metropolitan is losing interest in the world's few superstars, it ought to kiss and make up as quickly as possible. Especially since it was wrong to begin with.