NEW YORK -- At 31, Gordon Hawkins is struggling to avoid premature aging.

Hawkins, a Prince George's County native who sings his first role with the New York City Opera tonight, is a baritone -- a kind of voice that is usually typecast as an old man, a father, a villain or frequently all three.

"I'm not sure I'm ready for that," says the young singer. For now, Hawkins is being spared the nasty roles and the geriatric makeup. Tonight he will sing the role of Escamillo the bullfighter in "Carmen," the updated City Opera production that puts the story in the Spanish Civil War period and has Escamillo acting something like a heavyweight boxing champion. On Oct. 10, he takes an even bigger step at the Metropolitan Opera. In a cast that includes Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni, he will take the role of Marcello, the principal baritone and the second male lead in "La Boheme." What about Rigoletto, Macbeth, the Count di Luna in "Il Trovatore" and all the other great baritone roles? "No!" says Hawkins, who thinks for a moment and modifies it: "Later!"

With Escamillo and Marcello, Hawkins is eluding two kinds of stereotypes: not only those that affect baritones but also those that affect African American singers. He has sung in New York many times before, and at the summit of the city's musical life, the Metropolitan Opera. But it has always been in "Porgy and Bess." Asked to discuss "Porgy" as (a) an opportunity and (b) a possible dead end for black singers, Hawkins glances at a reporter's notebook, chuckles and says, "You don't have enough paper." Then he lets the question simmer while he answers easier ones.

Hawkins is well known in Washington, where he won the Metropolitan Opera's regional auditions in 1986. He has sung with the Washington Opera, the Wolf Trap Opera Company, the Washington Concert Opera and smaller local companies, with the National Symphony and other local orchestras, and at the Organization of American States, Music for the Inner City, the Schubert, Schubert and Schubert Festival and many other local venues. He was born in Clinton, the seventh and youngest child of a minister, and began his singing career in his father's choir. "I sometimes think we {African American singers} have a kind of ethnic advantage," he says. "So many of us have learned to sing in church choirs."

"From my first singing experiences in the church choir, I learned to equate singing with 'making a joyful noise,' and I still do," says Hawkins. "The first time I saw an opera was the first one I sang in. But I did love the first operatic voice I ever heard. That was Eleanor Steber's recording of Samuel Barber's 'Knoxville: Summer of 1915.' I used to play that record all the time -- particularly just before going to bed."

For most of his first 17 years, Gordon Hawkins did not think of a singing career; he thought his future lay in baseball, his other spectacular talent. Actually, he recalls, "I never really thought much about either of them; they were both kind of natural to me. I was drafted for the Texas Rangers while I was still in high school, then I got a baseball scholarship to the University of Maryland. I was a pitcher, and my best pitch was my fastball, but I also had a decent curve. I don't want to be one-dimensional, even in baseball.

"I began at Maryland as a math major but I just didn't have the talent for that. I became a music major in the second semester of my sophomore year, but at that time it was really baseball more than anything else."

Then something happened, and the minister's son emerges as Hawkins talks about it: "I think God was involved; I think I'm supposed to be here, doing what I am doing." That message from above came in the form of an accident. "I tore my shoulder -- the right shoulder," Hawkins says. "It was what they call the rotary cup, where the arm fits into the shoulder. Without a pitching arm, that was the end of baseball for me. I could have taken two years off to let it heal and then perhaps have come back, but at 17 years old I didn't have that kind of patience."

Now, patience is one of the things he has most abundantly -- the patience to stick with roles that are good for his present voice and stage personality, while he prepares for the great roles that will come later. A baritone's voice does not reach its full development until fairly late in life.

Hawkins thinks he knows where his relatively light, lyric baritone is heading, but he also knows he is not there yet. "It's going to go toward Verdi, I'm sure it is," he says. "The problem is that, if you say you are a Verdi baritone, people will want you to do it now, because there aren't many of them out there. So I just tell them I am a young baritone who can sing some of the Verdi repertoire -- the early, lyric stuff -- a lot of Puccini roles ... Mozart ... anything a 31-year-old baritone should be singing, like Marcello in 'La Boheme.'

"It's really easy, if you have a voice with any sort of size to it, to overdo it. Eventually I hope to sing Germont in 'La Traviata,' Renato in 'Un Ballo in Maschera,' the Count in 'Il Trovatore' and the title roles in 'Rigoletto' and 'Macbeth.' I sing those things now, but only one person hears them -- my teacher. When we're ready, we'll come out of the closet and show them to other people.

"For some of those roles, it may be soon, but not now. I might be almost ready for a 'Ballo,' or a 'Don Carlo,' but these aren't done a lot on the regional circuit, and I'm certainly not ready to do them in New York. So, to sustain myself until I'm ready to do those things, it's Puccini; sometimes it's Escamillo."

He hesitates not only to save his voice from the wrong kind of exertion but to avoid pigeonholes. While he was accepting the role of Marcello at the City Opera, he turned down another, equally enticing but somewhat heavier role with the same company: Jack Rance, the sheriff in Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West." And he is rationing carefully his appearances in "Porgy and Bess."

"I will get many offers to sing 'Porgy,' " he says. "Down the line, I will get many offers to sing Jack Rance, but to keep it in line, to keep the progression right and natural and healthy, there are certain steps I need to take in a certain approximate order. I might fly off to East Ridge, Montana, and do a 'Ballo' where nobody will ever hear about it, just to try it out. Then I could come back... .

"Germont is a good part," he says. "It's respectable; he has an aria; he doesn't have to carry the show although he is integral in it. He has a commanding presence too. But Marcello is young and he's a lover; although Germont is very lyric, it's an older man's part. If you do Germont and start to be seen in that light ... well, sometimes casting directors have a very narrow vision and you may stay there. Too many Germonts can lead to too many Amonasros {in "Aida"} and too many Jack Rances, but Marcello can lead to Don Giovanni or to Valentin {in Gounod's "Faust"}, and that's where I would like to be heading right now."

It is still early in a career that, properly managed, might keep him on stage for another 30 years or more, but Hawkins, who has a home in Chevy Chase and an apartment in New York, already has enough work to let him turn down -- or at least postpone -- an opportunity as promising as Jack Rance with the City Opera. He is booked for 25 performances at the Metropolitan Opera next season, and for the spring of 1991 his Columbia Artists manager has booked a tour of 16 recitals "as far south as Mississippi and as far north as Nova Scotia."

As for "Porgy," which has taken him as far as Australia on tour and got him his start at the Met, Hawkins thinks it is "a blessing and a curse" for a singer like himself. He almost decided not to audition for the Met's "Porgy and Bess" when it was announced. "I talked with a very good friend who was in the chorus," he says. " 'I know I'm good enough to get into the Met with mainstream repertoire,' I said -- this is ego talking -- 'and doggone it, I'm going to do it.' My friend said, 'Look, this is an opportunity. Once you get in there, it's up to you what you do with it.' " So Hawkins went and auditioned with mainstream repertoire until he was asked to sing something from "Porgy and Bess." He did, then discussed the work briefly with Met Artistic Director James Levine and a week later he had a contract.

"It's a great work," he says, "and I don't ever want to pretend that I'm above doing it. It should be respected just like any other great work. However, it is just one great work, and there are lots of others that I need to learn from. Just doing three or four tours of 'Porgy and Bess' per year, I can't learn from that. There are a lot of people whose major opportunities come from 'Porgy and Bess,' and they have to make a living, they have to eat, they have families to support.

'Porgy and Bess' is steady and it always pays good money, and when people go that route and are comfortable with that, I certainly don't want to judge. But from my position, it is a good idea to do as much work as possible that is not 'Porgy and Bess.' I will always have opportunities to do 'Porgy,' and I will want to now and then. But I will not always have opportunities to grow through Puccini, to grow through Mozart, to grow through recitals and concerts."