The front of the T-shirt has pictures of the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument and the words "Washington Civic Opera." On its back are the words, "Washington's best-kept secret."

The slogan is not completely true. According to a story circulating among members of the Civic Opera chorus, a rider on the Washington subway saw the T-shirt on a fellow passenger, jumped up from his seat and shouted, "It is not." But even if there are one or two better-kept secrets in town than the Civic Opera's activities, it has certainly kept a low profile.

It is one of about a dozen small opera companies inside the Beltway that live in the growing shadow of the Washington Opera, not to mention such prestigious visitors as the Metropolitan and the New York City operas. And it is in a serious financial crisis. All opera companies are in a financial crisis, including the Met, but the Civic Opera's problem seems unique: After 26 years, it has lost its congressional subsidy. It has to sell tickets for the first time, and it is just beginning to learn how.

"The members of the chorus are out trying to sell tickets," says Vito Sabia, president of the Friends of the Washington Civic Opera. "We are putting out flyers and talking to anyone who will listen to us about the merits of the company, what it does for the city and its people, what it means to young singers who need a chance to perfect their art. But it is getting pretty close to the deadline."

The deadline for selling tickets is this weekend, when the Civic Opera gives two performances of "Madame Butterfly" in Lisner Auditorium. That means approximately 3,000 tickets to be sold at prices ranging from $4.50 to $7.50. If the company sells every ticket, it might be able to raise nearly half of the $40,000 budget for this production -- which is about all that any opera company can do on ticket sales.

In the past, when the tickets were free, the scene outside Lisner has always been lively just before curtain time at a Civic Opera production, with crowds milling about on the sidewalk and steps. The audience had a special kind of flavor; a high proportion of its members were foreign-born, there were quite a few children, and it was one of the most integrated classical music events in the District of Columbia -- on the stage and in the audience. The Civic Opera has been integrated since it began in the early 1950s, when it performed in a small auditorium at the Department of Agriculture. That was one of the reasons it was adopted by the D.C. Department of Recreation and given an annual subsidy by Congress in 1954.

"The Congressional appropriation," says George Frain, who worked as an aide to former congressman Frank Thompson (D-N.J.) and helped the bill through, "was based mainly on integration, the quality of the company's work and the training it was giving young singers. Now, that money has just been taken away and used for something else."

According to Mildred Bautista, director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the money was "taken away" at the request of the City Council, "and given to my agency to be used in a competitive grant process. Then, about four weeks ago, I began getting phone calls from people at the Civic Opera. They were expecting money from Recreation. I was surprised. It sounds like there was a misunderstanding.

"They should apply under our competitive grants process," she says, "and I think they would have a very good chance. But they have never really applied for any grants -- from the commission or anyone else."

Presiding over limited funds and burgeoning demands in the current ferment of cultural life in Washington, Bautista says ruefully, "sometimes I feel like a triage officer. The next two years are going to be brutal, and as the squeeze is felt at the national endowments, more and more demands will be made on this agency. I don't know how to respond. It's hard to say no to people, particularly when you think there is validity in what they are doing."

The company's director, Richard Weilenmann, is a musician beginning to come to terms with the management problems of the changed situation, and determined to keep the Civic Opera alive.

"These people deserve it," he says. "They've worked hard and done their very best. These are not powerful people, they're choral singers. We have not built a powerful board or anything. Most people who go to an opera think that the company needs singers and not much else. But what you really need is management, common sense and business experience."

He pauses for a moment and adds, "One thing we have found out is that we have a lot of friends. The way people around town have been trying to help us is magnificent." One person who is helping is Richard Terrell, the Recreation Department's director of cultural activities, who is still making the department's resources available for building sets and making costumes, and supplying stagehands, lighting technicians and other backstage help. This amounts to a substantial part of the production expense, and with it the company just possibly might be able to pull through.

"We won't put them out without an oar," Terrell says. "I think they're a great organization and we will help in any way we can. In return, they are giving us tickets to bring groups of senior citizens and other special groups to the dress rehearsal and performances. It is a delightful experience working with them, and I sure hope there is an angel out there somewhere listening to their calls for help."