George Shirley knows about failure. He knows how it feels to be given the chance of a lifetime, the chance to become an operatic superstar, and to fail so miserably that the word goes out - you will never sing again.

George Shirley also knows about victory. He is that rarest of men, an operatic failure who made a comeback. Today his voice, honed originally as a child who sang hymns and spirituals, is bigger and stronger than ever; he is now in demand internationally for his combination of acting ability, intelligence and vocal expertise. Washington audiences may judge for themselves this afternoon, when Shirley makes a sentimental return to sing a concert at 3:30 p.m. at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, where he once sang in the choir.

The failure Shirley had to overcome began as his big chance in the summer of 1972, a decade after he had won the Metropolitan Opera national competition and joined the Met as the first black tenor to win a contract. His Met experience after he was put in contract, however, was entirely in supporting roles or as an understudy.

The fall 1972 season was to open with Franco Corelli in the leading role of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, but that summer Corelli disappeared. When all attempts to reach the Italian tenor failed, Schuyler Chapin, director and successor to Sir Rudolph Bing, asked Shirley, who was understudying the role, to substitute at an orchestral rehearsal. Shirley agreed, but reluctantly. The role had always been difficult for him. He wanted to be well-rehearsed and psychologically prepared. He was neither.

Yet to his own surprise, Shirley acquitted himself with honors at the rehearsal. Things had gone so well that when Corelli still could not be found to sing at the dress rehearsal, Shirley substituted again. He was completely relaxed because he knew there was no danger of having to carry through with an opening night performance; Corelli, although notorious for cutting rehearsals, would surely not miss the opening of the Met's season. Shirley was so good at the dress rehearsal that even the orchestra applauded. So Chapin asked him to take over the role.

Shirley began to panic. A few years before his self-confidence had been undermined.

"I had some wisdom teeth removed and lost some blood. Three days later I thought I was fine. I was doing a recital in the Midwest. I got into the second group of songs and reached for a high note and had to push for something that had always been there before. It frightened me so badly that it kicked off an era of wondering, whenever I walked out on stage, whether it would happen again."

He worried it would happen the opening night of Romeo et Juliette - he would walk out on stage and lose his voice. It began to obsess him, even though he knew that an actor who sings is in the most vulnerable of all positions if he does not have an almost demonic self-assurance.

"Somehow I decided that I would sing with more muscle than I had ever sung in my life," Shirley said. "I told myself, "If I am going to blow it; I will blow it tonight." " But his voice seemd to gain strength. To avoid tiring it, Shirley took an alternate note during an ensemble instead of the high B natural written in the score, saving himself for the final high note in the third act. When that moment came, he went after the note "like a hungry wolf." It sailed out triumphantly - he thought.

However, he also knew a singer cannot know what his voice sounds like. It is a physical impossibility. "What sounds good to me may not be so good."

The next morning, Shirley was buoyant until he had a call from his press agent. Had he, she wanted to know, seen the New York Times? He had not.

"Was it bad?"

She could barely summon a voice. "Yes," she whispered.

"I got the paper, read the review and it prophesied doom for me."

Although Shirley was committed to singing three or four more performances as Romeo, Chapin thought he had little future. "Vocally, George was barely hanging on," Chapin recalled. "When the curtain came down, I thought, "He's not going to want to do this any more." My problem was how to say this without hurting him."

There is, however, no gentle way to be told that one's career at the Met is over. Shirley waited out the balance of that year's contract, "comparing myself to others and coming out on the short end. That was the closest to paranoia I ever came in my life."

He could have given up singing. He did not. "In spite of the problems, the pain and disappointment, the impulse to see it through is always the strongest impulse." Instead, Shirley began several years of individual and group therapy, which he continues today.

"Singers are so voice-focused that they lose all perspective," he said. "Their sense of self-worth is completely bound up with what they can do. This was paritcularly true in my case, since singing had been my entree into the world. To reject my singing meant rejecting me. And here I was in a group, my faith in myself completely shattered, and people were reacting to the fact that I was a human being.

"The first time someone said, "You aren't just a voice; you are a human being," I was absolutely stunned. It was as if someone had hit me with a hammer."

With a voice like George Shirley's, a person could be forgiven for thinking it was his reason for being. It is unexpectedly large for someone of his physique. It is, moreover, a voice that insinuates its charm on the ear, a voice of mellifluous ease and as many coppery depths as vintage brandy. When he sings Pelleas, his most famous role, from Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, the mind's eye conjures up a youthful, ardent yet courtly lover, an idyllic incarnation of a medieval ideal.

Yet never for a moment did this born singer expect to have a musical career.

"It never ceases to amaze me," said the 45-year-old lyrical spinto tenor, "that I have had a career at all. It was never consciously planned. I had always sung a great deal of choral music and recitals, but the kind of music I was interested in no one encouraged. It was a very difficult metier for a black male at that time and there were few successful black singers.

"Roland Hayes! When I mention his name it hurts to find young blacks who have never heard of him. I heard his name from the moment I opened my eyes. He was a musical deity. "You are growing up to be another Roland Hayes," they told me. Well, I could never hope or desire to be. There could only be one Roland Hayes, but he was certainly the right idol in every respect. He was a classical musician interested in the music of his own people. He was always positive in his outlook. He was a beautiful human being."

Shirley was an only child, born in Indianapolis into a musical family. His mother sang and his father played the piano, guitar and fiddle. "I have very vivid memories of childhood. For instance, I can recall the scene in front of me as I sat in the kitchen in my high chair. The sun was coming in from the left and throwing light on the floor, and beside that was a pool of spilt milk. Somehow I knew I was about to be in big trouble..."

Shirley began singing when he was 2 1/2 years old - sprituals and hymns in church. He was a recitalist at the age of 4 and, when he was 5, was entered in a children's radio contest. He sang an old Bing Crosby number, "There's a Gold Mine in the Sky Far Away."

"All I can remember is walking out on stage. I was numb. I stood there like a little robot, regurgitating my song." He won second prize: the first of many recordings of him singing.

His family moved to Detroit and Shirley continued to make the same effortless musical impression. He was singing constantly ("I was cock of the walk") and being urged to become the first black music teacher in the Detroit public school system. "It never occurred to me to have a performing career. The people who were adivising me had never been in show business. They only knew that it had got to be difficult for someone with my ethnic background."

Nothing might have changed for George Shirley had he not been drafted. He completed eight weeks of basic training in Missouri and went home on furlough, expecting to enter the post band as a euphonium player. The prospect seemed so bleak he decided to join two other draftees in a wild bid to audition for the U.S. Army Chorus. The three of them started out in a two-door Studebaker on a round-the-clock drive to Washington. They got as far as Cincinnati, gave up in exhaustion and got airline seats for the rest of the trip.

Shirley was auditioned by the late Col. Sam Loboda, then a captain, who had founded the chorus using instrumentalists willing to do double duty as singers. By the time Shirley arrived, the shift to hiring fully fledged singers had begun. "Captain Loboda heard me sing and went to the officers' room for 25 minutes, and I just knew what was going on."

Loboda was arguing for acceptance of the chorus' first black singer. When he returned, " "It was one of the few occasions when Sam made a remark that could be bested. He said, "We want you, if that's what you really want," and I replied, "If I hadn't wanted it, I wouldn't have driven all night." "

Shirley, by then married, sang in the Army Chorus for three years, as well as at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church. He supported his family by selling Bibles and storm windows on the side, although, "I never could bring myself to do the necessary arm-twisting." While in the chorus, Shirley auditioned for Themy Georgi, a voice teacher who has since died, "a handsome man, half-Greek and half-turk, half-Turk, a movie-star profile."

Georgi listened to Shirley in silence, then inhaled, intoning, "You have a very good voice. You study with me for one year, and I guarantee you will have a career."

Someone actually believed that Shirley might become a professional singer. The idea captivated him. "As soon as I made my debut, I knew that this was something I was born to do."

Little by little Shirley became aware of the difficulties facing a black opera singer. Although there are many great black women singers, "even today you run into the kind of thinking that you can't have a black Manon or Violetta in opera," Shirley said. "Still, it is easier for women than for men. The big problem arises for black tenors, because tenors sing romantic leads and some boards of directors can't handle a black male singing opposite a white female. The darker the brother, the more difficult it is to be accepted."

Constance Mellen, one of the major figures in the Opera Society of Washington since its inception and who remembers Shirley's performances here in many major roles, said casting was always made on the basis of talent alone. "The feeling was that we were never to pat ourselves on the back for hiring blacks, that this was something we took for granted."

Schuyler Chapin, now dean of Columbia University, denied that prejudice was a factor in the Met's casting. If there was any problem, it had more to do with dramatic plausibility. "I remember having a very serious altercation with a major conductor, who was an emphatic liberal, who objected to having a black woman sing Almaviva in Marriage of Figaro. He was convinced that this would be too implausible and would jar the dramatic impact."

Shirley points out, however, that audiences used to the artifices of classical opera have long accepted the idea that Aida, an Ethiopian, may be sung by a Slav, or that the sylph-like Oriental, Madame Butterfly, may be played by an Occidental with a monumental midriff. Why not, therefore, have an 18th-century Mozartian heroine sung by a black? Or a black Hamlet, for that matter? "It's a sin and a shame to waste the talent of James Earl Jones simply because he isn't Caucasian or English."

Therman Bailey, a teacher of voice in New York who has had a career of his own as an operatic bass baritone, agrees with Shirley that the problem can only be explained in terms of prejudice. "I was hired by the Cologne Opera only to see everyone else being cast for roles except myself," he said. "When I went to find out why, I was shuffled from one office to the next. No one could bring himself to tell me the truth. At last, I got it: "We are not quite sure how you are going to look on the stage." "

That was in 1961. Although Bailey was finally cast and sang with that German opera company for six years, he said the situation is unchanged. Promising young black males are not being hired or, if they do succeed in forging careers, are only allowed to reach a certain level.

"Once their fee reaches a level comparable to that of their white counterparts, they find themselves not getting hired and a young black with less experience and a lower fee brought in to fill their place," Bailey said. As a result, he noted, many potential opera stars become discouraged and transfer to the more promising field of Broadway pop.

Shirley and Bailey are chairman of the board and president, respectively, of a new nonprofit organization, Independent Black Singers, Inc. The group hopes to make black male singers more visible, to provide help and consolation for the young, and to influence present thinking.

"We have 40 members," Bailey said, "and one of them called in recently to report that his agent had sent him to audition for Cosi Fan Tutte. When he walked in, rehearsals were already in progress and they said, "On no, you must be in the wrong place. This is an operatic audition." The black tenor said, "Yes I know." He sang five arias. He didn't get the job."

Shirley himself seems to have suffered less than most from such discrimination. He has played Tamino in Mozart's The Magic Flute at the Glyndebourne Festival, Lord Percy in Anna Bolena, Rodolfo in La Boheme with the Scottish Opera and Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House, among many other roles traditionally reserved for white tenors.

He was, in fact, having better luck being cast for leading roles outside the Met than inside the house which had been the first to recognize his talent and award him with a contract. After several 11th-hour substitutions in leading roles (the first time, in Cosi Fan Tutte) Shirley found himself typecast as a man who can be depended upon to rise to the last-minute occasion. Almost every one of the 20 or 30 major roles he sang was assigned on an emergency basis, covering for someone else. Until that fateful moment when he substituted for Franco Corelli, Shirley had always come through with flying colors.

Now the demand for his performances is strong again. Last season Shirley made his debut with both the San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, sang Verdi's Requiem with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, La Boheme with the Connecticut Opera and the Fujiwara Opera Company in Tokyo. This season he sang at Covent Garden in Das Rheingold under Colin Davis, did performances of Elektra with the Detroit Symphony and appeared in France in Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, singing the role created for Peter Pears.

This spring Shirley also sang Benedict in Berlioz" Beatrice and Benedict with the newly formed Indianapolis Opera Company. One of the principal organizers of the production was Matthew Epstein.

Epstein commented on Shirley's performance: "George did awfully well. Each rehearsal his singing was stronger and more assured. His voice is not a lyric, light voice any more; it's more strong dramatically. It has a much darker color; it's a much bigger voice. Lost his voice? Surely not. I can't imagine the part being sung much better by anybody." CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Robert Gumper