AMERICA has a musical problem, and it's time we did something about it.

On the whole, our musical life has been shaping up well in the last few generations. Our best symphony orchestras, opera companies and string quartets take second place to none in the world, but we are lagging seriously in one department.

I am referring to the art of the bathroom baritone, the soapy soprano. American showers are the world's best, as anyone who has traveled widely can testify, but the singing that happens in them is not up to par.

I don't think we need to worry about the high notes; everybody misses one occasionally--and besides, who's listening? But there is one area where those born in Europe have an advantage over most Americans when it comes to singing in the shower: They are much more likely to know the words. Americans usually peter out after the first few words: "La donn' e mobile . . . la, la, la, something else . . ." you know the routine. In French, German or Italian, we simply have to try a little bit harder.

The problem is too large to be solved with a single newspaper article, but we must do what we can, and the sooner we get started, the better. For the moment, we will concentrate on the three main operatic languages--Italian, French and German. Russian, Czech and Polish may be saved for advanced students and those who want to sing the English-language material of Handel, Bernstein or Gilbert and Sullivan can take care of themselves.

Certain types of repertoire are excluded by their very nature. The Mad Scene from "Lucia" is simply too long and elaborate for effective performance in a shower. In any case, it really doesn't work without a flute. Only a very elaborate shower (perhaps in a locker room) could accommodate the necessary forces for the celebrated sextet from the same opera--and even if there were space, there are still serious questions of taste to be considered.

Taste also precludes shower performances of love duets such as "La ci darem" from "Don Giovanni"--though it must be admitted that the effect could be quite striking. No! If you plan to sing duets in the shower, do not drag the ancient and noble art of opera into this. It might be all right to try it with lighter material such as "People Will Say We're in Love."

The examples printed below are drawn from the operatic Top 40, the material most suitable for shower performance and most likely to be useful to the average reader. The traditional division of voices into soprano, alto, tenor and bass need not be applied rigidly to shower singing. In this kind of music-making, it would be absurd to restrict "La donn' e mobile" to tenors, the "Evening Star" song to baritones and the "Haban era" to mezzos. On the other hand, it would be inappropriate for a woman to sing "La donn' e mobile" or for a man to try the "Haban era."

The purpose of this article is simply to allow potential singers to master the words and the appropriate feelings associated with this material. Context, explanation and paraphrase are supplied--rather than literal translations, which unfortunately tend to highlight the idiocy of operatic texts. As for the melody, tempo, pronunciation and repeats, these can be most readily mastered by listening to records.

Warning: Memorize the following texts. Do not take this paper into the shower. It will disintegrate and become illegible.

In Wagner's "Tannha user," the eponym, a medieval minstrel-knight, has committed a sin that even the pope cannot forgive--prolonged dalliance with Venus, goddess of love. He is loved by the fair and chaste Elisabeth, who pines away and dies of shock after learning of his sin. As her soul wends its way to heaven, where she plans to plead for Tannha user's pardon, Wolfram, who loves Elisabeth, mourns her death. He sings an invocation to the evening star, asking it to greet her soul as it flies by on its way to become an angel. Ironically, the evening star to which he sings this exquisite melody is Venus, who started all the trouble. EVENING STAR O, du mein holder Abendstern, wohl gru sst' ich immer dich so gern: vom Herzen, das sie nie verriet, gru sse sie, wenn sie vorbei dir zieht, wenn sie entschweibt dem Tal der Erden, ein sel'ger Engel dort zu werden.

Bizet's "Carmen" offers a wealth of shower music, from which space will allow us to print only two selections (regretfully passing over the "Toreador" song, for example). In the Act I "Haban era," Carmen describes her style of loving--fierce and untamable, fitful and unpredictable, an overwhelming force of nature whose target should beware. At the end of the "Haban era," she throws a flower at Jose', a young soldier who burbles about the incident in the "Flower Song" when they meet again in Act II after many vicissitudes. HABANERA L'amour est une oiseau rebelle que nul ne peut apprivoiser, et c'est bien en vain qu'on l'appelle, s'il lui convient de refuser. Rien n'y fait menace ou prie re; l'un parle bien, l'autre se tait; et c'est l'autre que je pre'fe re. Il n'a rien dit mais il me plai t. L'amour est enfant de Bohe me, il n'a jamais connu de loi; si tu ne m'aimes pas, je t'aime, et si je t'aime, prends garde a toi. FLOWER SONG La fleur que tu m'avais jete'e, dans ma prison m'e'tait reste'e fle'trie et se che, mais gardant son parfum terrible, enivrant. Et pendant des heures entie res, sur mes yeux fermant mes paupie res, ce parfum, je le respirais et dans la nuit je te voyais, car tu n'avais eu qu'a parai tre, qu'a jeter un regard sur moi pour t'emparer de tout mon e tre. Et j'e'tais une chose a toi.

Giuseppe Verdi is the greatest of all shower composers, and the greatest of shower arias is undoubtedly "La donn' e mobile." The duke of Mantua sings this aria about the fickleness of women en route to an amorous assignation. He is obviously projecting, since he is the most fickle thing on two legs. He is supposed to be assassinated during his tryst, but there will be a terrible case of mistaken identity and his enemy will be handed the wrong corpse, giving the opera a suitably sad but inspiring ending. LA DONN' E MOBILE La donn' e mobile, qual pium' a'l vento. Muta d'accento e di pensiero. Sempre un amabile leggiadro viso in piant' o in riso, e menzognero.