Overture:

A few minutes before curtain time for the season's last "Magic Flute" Sunday afternoon and along the row of singers' dressing rooms in the Kennedy Center, Martin Feinstein was parading up and down, bussing the costumed women. "It's the right of the general director," proclaimed the general director as he grabbed Karen Hunt, who stars as Pamina.

While Feinstein made his rounds, so did the company business manager, Sally Thomas. She was running up and down the dressing room corridor passing out checks in sealed envelopes. Why pay them before they are finished, Thomas was asked. "Maybe it will make them happy and they will sing better," she explained.

Five hours and several dozen arias and ensembles later, a stage crew of about 24 was striking the sets in the Opera House with the urgency of an army breaking camp. Singers rushed through a post-performance party, luggage and a few children in hand, on the way to their planes. And the artificial trees from "Macbeth's" Birnham wood that for five performances had, as the Witches foresaw, been removed in battle to Dunsinane, were now upstairs in the Terrace Theater making the country settings of the gentle "L'Elisir d'Amore" seem all the more bucolic.

It was the end of a long day at the opera and the beginning of a long night.

Theme:

Sunday night was also the end of the first half of the company's 10-week season, the first time the opera has organized a sustained repertory season on the model of the Met, the New York City Opera or San Francisco. Beginning Nov. 7 with three new productions in the Opera House and ending Jan. 16, it has been the most ambitious, and strenuous, burst of energy in the Opera's history. Starting last night the company moved to the Terrace Theater for four more productions. Of this year's undertakings, five are new productions, the same number the Met will stage in the full season.

For the three Opera House efforts -- new stagings of Puccini's "La Bohe me" and Verdi's "Macbeth" and a charming "Magic Flute" borrowed from Houston -- the company had amassed a cast of 507, including telephone and ticket sale volunteers, production staff, administrative staff, chorus, supernumeraries, singers, the orchestra, three conductors and, of course, general director Feinstein, the Kennedy Center's former executive director of the performing arts, who in his first full season with the Opera pursues his long-held goal of establishing a major opera company in the nation's capital.

He has set the Washington Opera on a course of growth. Shaken by the immobilizing illness that struck its leader, George London, in 1977, the company had lived hand-to-mouth until this season -- its successes, which were often borrowed from other companies, more the exceptions than the rule.

Whether Feinstein's plan will work won't be known for several years. The new "La Bohe me" that opened the season with President and Mrs. Reagan in attendance was sold out and was a critical success, as was "The Magic Flute." "Macbeth" got bad notices and attendance of "about 85 percent," Feinstein said. In the high-risks/high expectations opera world, not a bad average.

Variations:

There are lots of disadvantages to developing an opera company in a place like Washington, most of them financial, but one rare advantage is the presence at the Kennedy Center of two houses suitable to opera. One, the Terrace Theater, is right for chamber opera, and the other, the Opera House, is large, though nowhere near in size to the largest American houses. Of the major companies, only La Scala and Munich have similar dual facilities. Most works can be done comfortably in either of the Kennedy Center houses, but considerable savings are possible because of the limited forces -- both in the production and the orchestra -- at the Terrace.

For example, the number of costumes needed for the four Terrace productions is about 350. The three Opera House productions required roughly 800 costumes. The season's most lavish production, "La Bohe me," with its beautiful Paris cafe' scene in the second act, cost about $250,000 for scenery and props. "Macbeth" was $100,000. By contrast, the most complex of the Terrace Theater's operas, Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," was budgeted at about $50,000, Feinstein said.

This is one way the Washington Opera can have its five productions without spending anything like as much as the Met on its five.

And a resourceful production person can make considerable cuts through the discreet acquisition of easily available props. "Do you recognize that chandelier on the floor over there?" asked artistic coordinator Roman Terleckyj as he directed a tour of the cramped backstage at the Terrace on Sunday. "No, it's not the one from 'Wiener Blut' last year. That was a different shape. This is the one that hung inside the cafe' in 'Bohe me' the most memorable single visual effect yet this season . And before that the big metal ring was part of those old fixtures that they removed from the main floor of the downtown Woodies. They let us have them."

In another economy, the Opera borrowed costumes for "Bohe me" from the Paris Opera, where director Gian Carlo Menotti had staged another version, and borrowed the "Macbeth" costumes from La Scala -- the same ones used in that company's superb "Macbeth" brought here five years ago.

"It was a fine deal except that we found that Europeans are built differently from Americans," recalled scenic designer Zack Brown. "Those helmets for the 'Macbeth' soldiers are copper, and Italian heads are simply smaller than American ones."

There was one prop on which no expense was spared: the tray of turkey drumsticks in "The Magic Flute," covered with plastic wrap, carried up from the performers' mess for Papagano in the second act. "He only gets a bite or two," said a chorus member, "and we complete the rest."

Other economies may come in the costs of singers. The only real celebrity among the fall casts was baritone Richard Stilwell, the Marcello in "La Bohe me" and a veteran of the Washington company, who is now in New York rehearsing the same role in the Met's new production under Franco Zeffirelli.

"Particularly with inflation, it is hard to ask singers back at the same fees," Feinstein observed. "We have been very fortunate in getting singers on the way up. I got Juan Pons this season's Macbeth when he was here two years ago in 'Lucia.' Since then he's done Falstaff at La Scala and his fee will go way up.

"The trick is to discover them first. Pat Raftery who made a sensational debut at 23 last year as Rossini's Figaro and will return this year was first spotted by Francis Rizzo, our dramaturg, at Wolf Trap at about 17 or 18. We followed his development in New York. Now he has been signed by Chicago as Figaro and he's moving very fast."

In "The Magic Flute," management decided that Maurice Sendak's beguiling designs, the conducting of the venerable Max Rudolf and Frank Corsaro's free-spirited direction could carry the production and so made no effort to engage celebrity singers. Their gamble paid off. Tenor Alan Kays thought that "this was the only way I would have gotten to sing Tamino, because I had never done it before except five years ago in a college workshop, and then it was in German."

Discord:

Some famous opera directors have had famous, and public, fights with their singers, stage directors and conductors that have led to noisy firings and recriminations, but so far Feinstein said he has compromised to keep the disagreements from escalating. Just last week John Mauceri, who conducted the glowing "La Bohe me," stepped down as music director "by mutual agreement," but it is known that Mauceri felt underutilized in the position. Mauceri will conduct next year, though.

Feinstein reported a minor disagreement he had with director Menotti about the backdrop for act three of "Bohe me," but he said, "There are some times when you disagree with the director that you don't push so far." Menotti prevailed.

Other times, Feinstein prevails: "In 'The Magic Flute' during the Queen of the Night's first aria, in rehearsal she took the tenor's head and lay it close to her bosom. I didn't like it. But Frank Rizzo said it worked in Houston, and I said, 'Well, maybe that singer didn't have the bosom of our Sally Wolf.' "

For all his occasionally brazen manner and his penchant for public hyperbole, Feinstein displayed in his more reflective moments an anxiety that his ideas for growth might push the Opera closer to bankruptcy. The elephantine economics of opera, that necessarily most expensive and least cost-effective of art forms, throws into dire straits those who risk their managerial reputations on keeping the creditors and the appetites of the audience equally satisfied.

He recalled the advice the Vienna Opera's Egon Seefehlner gave him about the business: "Martin, I tell you, any 10 opera buffs can take pieces of paper and write down the ideal season and the ideal casts. The problem, though, is to make it happen."

Feinstein explained, "You may have decided to do Opera A and you have decided you can afford to do it as you think it should be done and you get everything organized and then something happens and you cannot get the right cast. So if you then have to switch to Opera B, it's a total domino effect and it's probably too late to balance out the totality of the season. So maybe you can't do it to your satisfaction, but you must try. You must try to be consistent."

These problems pale, however, by comparison with opera's money problems. No company, anywhere, lives on its earnings. If the Washington Opera sold out every performance, ticket sales would still pay for only about a third of its budget. That's $1.3 million out of about $3.5 million, and the company is pushing as far as it dares at the box office. "This year we had a 47 percent increase in prices. Last year the orchestra was split in two prices, but this year we had to raise the $21 seats to $35 and there were only two letters of complaint and two phone calls. And as of now about two-thirds of the 42 performances in the Terrace are already gone.

"The rest must come from contributions, and I can frankly tell you that I don't know where it's going to come from. We have a hell of a lot of money to raise. And there are all the handicaps of Washington. We don't have huge corporations like Minneapolis. We don't have huge foundations like Pittsburgh. We don't have a state arts council. We don't have a huge population base, like Los Angeles or Chicago. There's nothing from the Virginia and Maryland arts councils, even though we service those states. I think the only answer for Washington's institutions is going to be a steady, regular flow of money from the federal government.

Finale:

The last "Magic Flute" ended at 5:15 Sunday afternoon, and seven Clark transfer trucks were already gathered on the plaza at the Kennedy Center to load up the sets by midnight and clean the place out.

A short ceremony was held on stage to honor the 79-year-old Max Rudolf, who was conducting his valedictory performance in opera. And then, after a 30-minute meal break, the stagehands began their feverish effort to clean out the place. Aside from the "Magic Flute" sets, there were the 42-foot walls from each side of the stage in "Macbeth" and the giant war machine that closed that opera was to be disassembled.

People seemed in good cheer. They were confident they would make their midnight deadline. After midnight, the stagehands would go on double time, and the preparations for the Kennedy Center Awards presentations next Sunday would be delayed.

On Monday, a glum Feinstein reported that striking of the sets went on until 2:30 a.m. "It's not good," he said.