Arlington was spring green last weekend and full of new beginnings. Along 25th Road one back yard had peat moss waiting to be divvied up. In the back yard next door, a tavern for the set of Mascagni's opera "Cavalleria Rusticana" was getting a final coat of paint so a fiery Ukrainian soprano could resume her operatic career.

While his set designers worked on the tavern and a church lying in his driveway, Nikita Wells, general manager of the newly formed National Lyric Opera Company, explained why he excited dozens of local opera lovers over the last few months.

"Renata Babak had to hide from the KGB for two years after she defeated in 1973 when the Bolshoi Opera was at La Scala in Milan. She was a star at the Bolshoi and has a big flowing voice and very dramatic conceptions of roles. George London [general director of the Washington Opera] heard her in Canada and encouraged her to come to Washington, where he coached her. He was going to help her resume her career when he had his stroke."

So Babak will make her debut in America as Santuzza in "Cavalleria Rusticana" with the National Lyric Opera Saturday night. She will also sing Marina's duet from Musorgsky's "Boris Godunov," a role she sang at the Bolshoi. Besides the complete "Cavelleria Rusticana," there will be scenes from "Die Fledermaus," "Rigoletto," "La Traviata" and "Madame Butterfly" as well as "Boris." Wells said he wanted to give as many local singers as possible a chance to sing solo roles.

"Babak is an international star," he said. "My other singers are the same caliber as the singers who sing for the Washington Opera. The trouble with opera in Washington is that there are no chances for local singers. There are many talented singers here, but they have to go to New York or Europe to get a chance. If I was seriously going to pursue a singing career and I came to Washington, I would leave the next day. This company will change that!"

Along with Babak, other Washington artists singing solo roles are Marvin Finley, Elizabeth Vrenios Kirkpatrick, Rhona Pullman, Elizabeth Lyra Ross and Nikita Rosanoff. "Finley is a baritone who has sung in churches all around the area," said Wells, touting his stars. "Elizabeth Kirkpatrick is head of the voice department at American University. Rhona Pullman and Elizabeth Ross are two very fine young singers."

And Nikita Rosanoff?

"Well, that's me. That's my stage name," he apologized in his slight Russian accent. "I thought it might look bad having the general manager of a company sing in his own productions. Actually, I'm a physicist with the Rand Corporation. I got my degree at GW, then worked in New York for 12 years or so. I helped install a neutron generator in Hamburg, Germany. Then, a few years ago, I returned to Washington. Everywhere I go I try to sing in operas. Rosanoff was the name of my great grandfather who was a basso for the Bolshoi."

Wells-Rosanoff is a voluble and energetic man, but with his modest mustache, slightly stooped posture and hair a bit unkempt he doesn't strike one as the type who pushes himself forward when there are others around who are better. So where are the many talented Washington singers who could sing his roles in the production?

"Oh, Washington singers are so used to not having a chance to sing big solo roles that they're afraid to take a risk. They decide to sing in the Washington Opera chorus because the pay is good. I can't pay anything. I did pay the expenses for the singers I brought down from New York."

Well's downcast tone took upbeat when he began raving about his soprano and two tenors from New York. "Patrizia DeCarmine is a beautiful young singer. She was an apprentice artist at Wolf Trap. She will have a very big career. Efren Puig is a very good tenor. Born in Cuba, he lives in New York and has sung for many companies. Adolfe Almonte, our other tenor, was born in the Dominican Republic and has sung a great deal in New York. He never got his break. He works as a bank teller, but he's a good singer. He's a hungry singer.

"I've kept ticket prices low, $5 to $8. Tell people there will be plenty of tickets at the door. Some parts of our productions might be rough, but the singing will be very good." Although 170 people - including Lyn McClain and the D.C. Youth Orchestra, Stephen Prussing and a chorus of 60, and the D.C. Recreation Department - volunteered help to create a showpiece for singers, Wells is risking $5,000 of his own money on the production.

"We plan to do three productions next year," said the physicist-baritone-opera manager, "including Anton Rubenstein's 'The Demon.' You know, I wouldn't mind doing operas all the time. Physics is so much harder and so lonely." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Susan Davis