"The only time I was so nervous was when I sang for the Pope," Luciano Pavarotti said yesterday afternoon as he opened his talk at the National Press Club. "Making any kind of statement in another language is very difficult. To make this here in Washington -- I think I am dreaming."

As anyone who has seen the famous tenor in his various TV appearances knows, he need not have worried. Pavarotti drew a crowd that Press Club regulars said was larger than most if not all presidential candidates could expect. Showing none of the nerves he claimed, he looked and sounded completely at ease as he talked briefly and then proceeded to spend nearly an hour answering 19 questions.

"The Met is here on tour," he explained. "Last night we opened in the beautiful hall with an incredible public, perfect acoustics. It was for all of us an incredible experience." Explaining that he came to Washington by car, Pavarotti said that he stopped in Philadelphia, where next year he will conduct a competition for young singers. The winners will appear in two operas with him that will be seen on television. It will be his way of helping young singers get special recognition. He added that in future years the young singers would appear with other famous artists "who can capture the ear of the audience."

The questions covered the field from the future of opera in America ("You have here the private support. La Scala is now looking for a private sponsor. The countries that have the private support for opera will succeed") to the best way to have your children become opera singers ("If your children are like mine, you should forbid them absolutely to come to the opera.")

When that answer brought the house down, Pavarotti reminded his listeners that he had been an elementary school teacher for years. "If you tell a young child he should not do something, right away he will do it. So. . . ."'

Asked whether singing as often as he does will shorten his career, Pavarotti answered, "If I lose two or three years, it doesn't matter. If you say I might lost 20 years, well, I am nearly 45, so that is out."

Several answers covered important matters for singers, such as singing in a language other than one's own. "There is a very beautiful piece by Benjamin Britten for tenor and horn. It is my dream to sing this. But it is in difficult English and I cannot do it. I will never be able to approach this.

"The most difficult technical problem for a young tenor is the passagio, the notes F sharp and G. The tenor voice is a constructed voice. The natural voice is the baritone. The young tenor working on the passagio will think after a while, 'I am suffocating.' But later the vocal cords are ready to approach the spot."

On what new roles he will sing in the next five years, Pavarotti gave out his easy smile and said, "Five years? Thank you very much. By then I will be nearly 50. Next year I am going to sing in 'Aida' in San Francisco. It is a big risk. I have been singing the aria 'Celeste Aida' with piano for 10 years. I must sing the role with my voice, in my way. If I do not push too much in one place . . ."

And what does Pavarotti do to keep his voice in shape? "I try to sleep more than is possible, generally between eight and ten hours. And I try to play tennis because it keeps me first of all, very healthy, and second, very happy. Because all the nerves I accumulate before the performance, and even after the performance . . ." After a pause, Pavarotti, with a slight lunge across the table, said, "when I am at the net and smash the ball . . ." and there went the nerves.

Pavarotti's generosity came in answer to the final question: Whom do you consider the second-greatest tenor? "That is a very good question," he began. "First of all, I would never put me first. There are others: Domingo, Carreras, Kraus, Bergonzi, Vickers, Gedda. We are in a bunch of tenors. When I am out in the house, I think, 'He is fantastic!'"