Gustav Mahler had not been general director of the Vienna Imperial Opera a month when he put out the word: "Be in your seats when it is time for the opera to begin or you will not be seated until the first act is over." That edict was annouced on Nov. 2, 1897. Mahler had taken over the direction in October.

His fiat sent such shock waves through the more self-indulgent of Vienna's opera lovers that six days later a historic "Letter to the Editor" appeared in the Sunday-and-Monday Times. It said, among other things, "At 7 p.m. precisely, or at 6:30 as the case may be, a steam whistle within the Opera House will announce the commencement of the performance. Whoever has not reached his seat by that time will have to bear the consequences as threatened in the Director's Rules dated 2 November."

That letter signed "L.A. Terne" -- which is one way to spell the German word for "lantern" -- offered some further strong hints of satire: Strikingly beautiful ladies, who might tend to attract the glances of gentlemen, may be refused entry to the Auditorium."

Herr von Laterne's greatest stroke of genius, however, was this: "Coughing, clearing of the throat and sneezing can only be permitted during a fortissimo. Immediately before the commencement of a crescendo the leader of the orchestra will indicate by a sign with his bow that members of the audience may bring out their handkerchiefs in anticipation of a cough or clearing of the throat."

Mahler had an extraordinarily ferocious glare that he reserved specifically for use when he turned around to annihilate the fools in the audience who did not know better than to begin applauding while a single note of music was still being played or sung. His singers, who often commented on the beauty of the smiles he gave them when things were going well onstage, were amazed at the speed with which the glare could replace the smile.

The Vienna State Opera is bringing a lot of that history -- if not, all of those rules -- to the Kennedy Center this week. During its first visit to the United States, the company will give 14 performances of opera here and three symphony concerts. These will be followed by three concerts in New York City. The operas will be seen only in Washington. The back-breaking schedule calls for the Vienna Philharmonic to play 17 nights in a row in Washington and on three of the succeeding four nights in New York.

The operas will be "The Marriage of Figaro," "Fidelio," "Salome" (in one unbroken act) and "Ariadne auf Naxos." The first two had their world premieres in Vienna, as did "Ariadne" in the final form in which it is always heard.

Vienna has a reputation for attracting star conductors, and the operas will be conducted here by three of the world's most celebrated musicians: Karl Boehm, who has twice held the general directorship of the company; Leonard Bernstein, who has become one of the greatest idols in Viennese history; and Zubin Mehta, who learned in Vienna much of what he knows about conducting.

In addition, most of the music of the three symphonic concerts also is Viennese in origin: the Second and Ninth Symphonies by Schubert, written in Vienna, though, never played during the composer's lifetime, the Pastoral and Ninth Symphonies by Beethoven. Only Wagner's "Tristan" -- from which Bernstein will conduct second-act excerpts -- was born outside of Vienna.

The Kennedy Center Opera House is almost exactly the same size as the rebuilt State Opera on the Ring, and both houses have some of the finest acoustics for opera to be heard anywhere.

During the momentous evenings of this historic visit, Mahler's rules for latecomers will apply in Washington: If you are late, you wait outside.

It seems fitting: Mahler's genius is one of the reasons for the Vienna Opera's reputation for greatness. The decade in which he ran the house has been called the "most brilliant period there has ever been." While that strong praise was meant to refer to the great house on the Ring, it is probable that neither of the world's other comparable houses, La Scala in Milan or the Metropolitan in New York City, ever surpassed those 10 years.

For instance, in two of the three years in which Mahler conducted at the Metropolitan, he had as a colleague Arturo Toscanini. But they shared the conducting with a bevy of vastly lesser lights. On the other hand, in Mahler's decade at the Vienna Opera, his colleagues included Bruno Walter, Hans Richter, and Franz Schalk. During Nmahler's regime, Wagner's operas were given without cuts, Mozart productions reached high levels they had never before enjoyed in the house, and Mahler made it a point to introduce such important but unfamiliar scores as Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades" and "Dalibor" by Smetana.

Politics, both artistic and governmental, always have played a large role in the operation of Vienna's theaters, and at the end of his great decade, Mahler was forced out. But his era was only one of the great epochs in the turbulent history of Viennese opera. From the time of its establishment as a major court entertainment in the middle of the 17th century, opera had been a favorite pastime of the Hapsburg emperors. In the early years of the succeeding century, Emperor Charles VI increased the Court Orchestra, which was also the opera orchestra, from 107 players to 134.

Today the Vienna Philharmonic, which also is the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, numbers 152 as the result of still another very recent enlargement. It is one of the unique glories of opera in Vienna that one of the world's finest orchestras is always in the pit.

Artistic rivalries always have flourished backstage in Vienna as they have in every major opera center. In the post-Mahler years -- when his successors included Felix Weingartner, Richard Strauss and Schalk -- fan clubs for Maria Jeritza and Lotte Lehmann vied for attention just as the most rabid admirers of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi lined up outside the Chicago Lyric's stage doors a quarter of a century ago. In Vienna, Jeritza and Lehmann found it convenient regularly to contrive to leave by different doors to the Opernagasse. Cab drivers in Vienna have always known what and who was playing that night at the opera, and could give details on Karajan versus Bernstein the way Redskin fans used to compare George Allen and Tom Landry.

Doormen also were among the top experts on the quality of performances. One evening as I was entering the opera house in Salzburg for a "Rosenkavalier" -- Salzburg is often referred to as "Vienna West" since whole productions are repeated there during the festivals -- the doorman spoke up. "Frau Della Casa has been singing up until tonight. But tonight the Marschallin herself is her." He was happy knowing that Elizabeth Schwarzkopf would be on the stage.

Even the singers' children sometimes got into the rivalary. Dagmar Schmedes, the small daughter of Erik Schmedes, one of the great Wagnerian tenors, went up to Leo Slezak one day. To one of the greatest tenors of all time, the little girl said, "Uncle Leo, Papa says he is an artist but you are only a tenor." Slezak, who was one of the physical giants of the stage, leaned down to the young child and answered, "And you tell your Papa that if he had my high C, he would only be a tenor too."

Like every great opera theater, the Vienna Opera was, for most of its history, the home of a permanent roster of many of the world's leading singers. hThanks to massive government support -- royal until after World War I when the name was changed from "Imperial" to "State" -- and prior to the coming of the jet airplane, artists received year-round contracts in Vienna and, for the most part, tended to stay there. A guest system permittted interchanges with other major houses, but permission was always necessary before accepting engagements elsewhere, and it was not always given. The requirements of the house on the Ring always came first.