What a sight for sore arts-lover eyes: a sea of congressmen, senators, business execs and arts administrators all noisily and cheerfully drinking and munching on cheese and quiche in the atrium of the Kennedy Center as a show of support for the Washington Opera.

"I never can trun out all these people," quipped Kennedy Center head Roger Stevens, tuxedoed for another engagement later, who was an invited guest in his own home.

Last night, Stevens was one of the turnees -- standing along the marble wall of the atrium in a casual lineup that included former treasury secretary G. William Miller and Livingston Biddle, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The people who ran the Washington Opera were doing the turning out as they hosted a reception and dress rehearsal of "Madame Butterfly" for their government sympathizers and corporate friends -- of whom they need as many as they can get for their ambitious three-year fund-raising goal of $6.8 million.

"Our goal is nothing less than to give the capital one of the greatest opera companies in the country," said David Lloyd Kreeger, president of the board of the Opera and arts board-member-about-town.

Stevens spoke glowingly of Martin Feinstein, general manager of the Opera, who was thought to have had some rough moments with Stevens when they worked together at the Kennedy Center.

"He has been a prime reason for the development of cultural life in Washington," Stevens told the group of about 300. "When he worked with me, I always had to follow his act -- mumbling. I know he loves opera. He's very knowledgeable, and I know anyone who supports the Washington Opera will be in good hands."

Stevens said the Opera folks would make the Washington Opera "second best to none." He paused and looked at Feinstein. "How's that?"

"That's fine," said Feinstein grinning.

A variety of Congress members -- both parties -- wandered through the party. Se. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) a longtome arts supporter, sipped wine and talked about the new group of senators being formed to lobby for the arts. "You should examine what caucuses have done," he said, holding up thumb and forefinger. "Zero. But we're not calling this a caucus. We're calling it Concerned Senators for the Arts. Sen. [Howard] Metzenbaum [D-Ohio] has been very active. We think we can be effective."

Fred Richmond (D-N.Y.), who has started an arts caucus in the House, breezed through. And Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was there with his new wife, Catherine, whom he introduced to Texaco vice president J. Donald Annett and his wife Christa.

"Some people call us the opera company," said Annett referring to Texaco. "We've been supporting the Met for 41 years."

And finally Feinstein capped the reception by painting a picture of opera as a elaborate artistic undertaking that requires major infusions of money.

"Unfortunately the composers who wrote 100 years ago had no conception of wages we have to pay today," said Feinstein, who later noted that $1.7 million had been raised so far in the drive. "When you go to an actual performance, you may see 70 people in the orchestra, 60 to 100 in the chorus, 10 to 15 principals on stage. What you don't see are the 20, 40, 60, 80 people behind the scene. There are literally maybe 300 to 400 people involved in an opera."

Shortly before the group left for last night's rehearsal of "Madame Butterfly," Feinstien told them that Monday night's first rehearsal on stage had lasted five hours -- almost twice as long as the opera is scheduled to take in performance.

G. William Miller found some cheese and crakers to nibble on. "I haven't had anything to eat this evening," he said smiling. "I have a long evening ahead."