Hugh Southern, who was hailed late last year as an ideal general manager for the Metropolitan Opera Company, resigned yesterday after less than eight months on the job.

There had been rumors in New York operatic circles that Southern was having difficulties with the Met's board of directors, but the announcement of his resignation -- effective July 1 -- came as a surprise even to insiders. Analyses and explanations -- not for attribution and full of typically operatic innuendo, passion and complexity -- began to materialize, however, as soon as the resignation became known.

Southern, a 58-year-old native of England, was formerly deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and served as acting chairman for several months last year at the height of the controversy over alleged obscenity in NEA-funded art exhibits. Earlier, he had served for 14 years as executive director of the Theater Development Fund in New York. He replaced Bruce Crawford as general manager of the Met, the largest opera company in the United States, on Nov. 1.

The job required "the skin of a rhinoceros and the strength of an elephant," a colleague said last year when Southern's appointment was announced. Apparently, Southern lacked this equipment.

The timing of the resignation, immediately after the telecast of the Met's complete "Ring" cycle, was probably a coincidence, according to sources at the Met. The project may have fallen short of the Met board's expectations in its audience size (estimated ahead of time at 100 million internationally) and media impact. But it was launched well before Southern came to the Met and was not his responsibility in any significant degree.

Two theories emerged almost instantly in the wake of the resignation. One was that Southern may have experienced friction with his predecessor, Crawford, who remains a powerful member of the Met's board.

Another is that the role of the company's general manager had less scope than Southern had expected. In the Met's structure, Southern shared power and responsibility with Artistic Director James Levine. Essentially, Southern was expected to handle the financial end of operations while Levine made decisions about casting, repertoire, choice of designers and directors, and other artistic questions.

But the reality may have been less simple than the organizational charts. "No one thinks for a minute that it {the resignation} had anything to do with Jimmy {Levine}," one of Southern's acquaintances said. "Hugh knew, going into the job, that he would not have an artistic policy-making role. But he probably expected to have a lot more control of the money end. At the Met and maybe in American opera companies generally, the old job of a general manager is changing, being divided up among specialists."

Two people at the Met have roles, in which they function very effectively, that might in the past have been part of a general manager's work. Joseph Volpe and Marilyn Shapiro are listed as "assistant managers" in the Met's corporate structure. Volpe is in charge of production -- essentially, the management of production budgets -- while Shapiro is in charge of development, a k a fund-raising -- "money going out and money coming in," as a Met insider put it. Between them, intentionally or not, they may have reduced the role of the general manager to a point that Southern could not accept.

"They may end up with some kind of troika: Jimmy, Joe Volpe and Marilyn Shapiro," said one source. "Maybe they won't give Marilyn that kind of public billing, but she has the power; she really knows how to find those bucks."

Southern, although unavailable for comment, said in a prepared statement that he had been "reluctant" to resign.

"But I have become aware over the course of the season that I had not found fulfillment in the position of general manager of the Metropolitan," he said. "I, therefore, felt it would not be fair or productive either to myself or to the Met to continue, and have tendered my resignation."

David Reuben, a spokesman for the Met, said: "Nobody is going to make any further comment. The statement speaks for itself."