When he was 15, Martin Feinstein decided that he had no talent for music -- and that he would devote his life to it. Those choices, made in New York a half-century ago, may have helped to make Washington one of the world's musical capitals. Other career choices might have made Feinstein a music critic or a second violinist in a minor orchestra. But he is not the kind who would spend his life playing second fiddle.

Today, he is general director of the Washington Opera, which opens its fifth season under his management Saturday night. Before that, he was for a quarter-century a member of the prestigious Sol Hurok concert management organization, then for eight years the executive director for performing arts of the Kennedy Center. During one season, while directing the Washington Opera, he was also the manager of the National Symphony. His career has not been free of sudden turns, friction and controversy. But it is a career studded with accomplishments.

You might think he planned it that way, which he didn't. His work with the Hurok organization made him a friend of the world's great singers and conductors. That's helped him get artists such as Shirley Verrett, Carlo Bergonzi and Jerome Hines to sing in Washington Opera productions, and Rafael Fru hbeck de Burgos, Daniel Barenboim and (next year) Mstislav Rostropovich to conduct them.

In his eight years at the Kennedy Center, he helped develop an opera audience here. Typically, perhaps, he did it in a controversial fashion -- bringing in blockbuster operatic attractions from other world capitals to compete with the Washington Opera. Some say he was deliberately applying pressure on the company that he would eventually take over.

"I always took an interest in the Washington Opera and hoped that it might evolve into a Kennedy Center opera company," he says. "I thought that Washington should have a great opera company, and when George London was appointed director of the Washington Opera, I thought it could happen. I told him, 'The companies I am bringing in will mean a greater challenge for you.' " Then London was stricken with a disabling illness and Feinstein inherited the challenge: an audience that has become accustomed to seeing the Vienna State Opera, La Scala and the Bolshoi in the Kennedy Center.

Feinstein tries to recruit performers of the Vienna and La Scala class for his company -- with mixed results. He did, though, sign up Placido Domingo last week. He won't say for what role or when; perhaps it has not yet been decided. With Dame Janet Baker, who refuses to sing opera outside of England, he had no chance at all, but he tried. "She told me, 'Opera is such hard work, when I've finished the day I want to go home and sleep in my own bed.' I told her, 'We'll bring your bed to Washington,' but it didn't work."

Considering all the effort Feinstein has put into it and the context he has established, international stars have hardly flocked to the Washington Opera. Still, in four years, Feinstein has increased the company's season from 16 performances to 72, with ticket sales at an amazing 92 percent of capacity. He has brought the Washington Opera from a regional company to one firmly established on the international scene, running joint productions in Paris, bringing one of his productions to the Edinburgh Festival and planning collaborations with other companies from Hamburg to Monte Carlo.

The number of performances has risen more spectacularly than the number of tickets sold. This is because most performances are in the Terrace Theater, which holds fewer than 500 paying customers. Feinstein and the Terrace both landed on the Washington Opera at the same time. The Terrace was the scene of his first operatic productions, and it has allowed him to pioneer a system of performances in two houses -- the Opera House for grand opera and the Terrace Theater for intimate opera -- that is being imitated by other American companies.

With notable help from Francis Rizzo, the company's artistic director, Feinstein has introduced to Washington audiences a remarkable number of young singers on the brink of international fame. This has been a necessity, because the company's budget allows it to hire established stars only sparingly. But it is remarkable how many of these young singers the Washington Opera has managed to launch on distinguished international careers.

Some of Feinstein's achievements are less obvious: He has accumulated a considerable capital of productions -- scenery and costumes from past seasons that can be rented to other companies or used again in Washington without back-breaking start-up expenses. A major production for a company like the Metropolitan Opera can cost close to $1 million.

"When I came to this company, we did not own a single production," Feinstein says proudly. "Now, we own more than 20." It is a claim that can be appreciated fully only by those who know the backstage dynamics of opera. But it is a remarkable achievement. When a production is brought back, like the stunning "La Bohe me" that will open the new season, Feinstein says, "we are collecting the interest on our capitalization. Some of our subscribers are displeased, of course. I don't blame them; I'd like to see seven new productions each year, too. But we do what we can afford to do."

Some of the Washington Opera's productions -- its "Bohe me," for example, and its "Rigoletto" -- are arguably the finest of their kind anywhere. Feinstein is ready to argue the point: "We have the world's best 'Rigoletto,' " he says flatly, and he promises a similarly lavish "Merry Widow" this year. Many Terrace productions have been equally impressive on a smaller scale, including "The Rake's Progress" and the Menotti double feature that will be seen later this season -- the one that was taken to Edinburgh.

Critics call him high-handed, a perfectionist, hard to work with, a man who has to have complete control and does not permit significant disagreements. Still, it was Feinstein, as performing arts director of the Kennedy Center, who was largely responsible for the shaping of the Terrace Theater as an opera house. "I felt that it would be ideal for small operas," he says. He asked for an orchestra pit that would seat up to 40 players and, after the costs were examined, got about half of what he wanted. The first summer after the Terrace was opened, he says, "I persuaded the powers that be to allow me to lose $250,000 to show what could be done operatically in that theater." The result was a brilliant, isolated 1979 summer opera season that ranged from almost slapstick comedy (Offenbach's "Christopher Columbus") to a surreal piece of modernism (Argento's "Postcard From Morocco").

The season had its ups and downs, critically and at the box office, but it proved two things: that the Terrace made a unique kind of opera production possible, and that Feinstein would be an interesting opera impresario. It was his last great presentation for the Kennedy Center. Soon thereafter, he took the job at the Washington Opera, an abrupt change in his career about which full details have never been made public.

Not long after accepting the opera job, he was approached by the National Symphony and accepted a second full-time job -- which meant he was managing Washington's two largest musical institutions. The two-job stint may have reached its high point when Feinstein celebrated his 60th birthday with the orchestra in Japan, during its April 1980 visit to the Osaka Festival. Again, the interlude was brief. Comment by the NSO board at the time of the appointment suggested that Feinstein was regarded as a good fundraiser; Feinstein's more natural inclination is to spend, sometimes lavishly, on productions.

"It didn't work," Feinstein says today, "but we still have very good relations. I was already with the Washington Opera when the NSO approached me, and I told them that if there were a conflict my first commitment was to the opera. Finally, it became obvious that the two jobs were an overload. They told me, 'It's too much; you'll have to make a choice.' And I chose the opera."

If Feinstein reaches his goal, the Washington Opera will have approximately a 20-week season with 10 or 12 productions each year, about half of them new. And the company will have "visibility all the time." Before he ever reaches such a situation, Feinstein can be expected to establish a new set of objectives. For example, he dreams of setting up a second grand opera season downstairs in the Opera House, to run after the Terrace season ends. "For that," he believes, "we could get a lot of stars who simply are not available in February or March."

He would also like to broaden the company's repertoire, but the budget is forcing him to move slowly. "We have had to neglect certain repertory," he says, "for financial reasons -- the French, the German and a whole flock of novelties from the Russian and Slavic wings. These are expensive to produce and they don't sell as many tickets."

"My ultimate goal," he says, "is for opera in Washington to have the kind of presence it has in Vienna. Every tourist who comes to Vienna has to go to the opera whether he has ever been to an opera or not."

Earlier, when he was running the show at the Kennedy Center with visiting attractions, Feinstein set himself the goal of "making Washington an international musical capital as well as a political capital." If anything, he overachieved, with a little help from his friends -- soloists, conductors and particularly dance companies.

For music lovers in Washington, it was a glorious time. For the Kennedy Center, it was expensive, and backstage rumors hint that the expense may be one reason he no longer has the job. "Quality is very important to me," Feinstein says. "I learned that from Hurok. 'If you're going to lose money,' he told me, 'at least you can do it with your head held high because you presented the best.' " Feinstein has certainly lost money on more than one venture, but in the process, he made the Kennedy Center a showcase for the world's greatest orchestras, opera companies and ballet companies; Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Milan and Moscow all sent the best they had for Washington audiences to enjoy.

The Kennedy Center Opera House, Feinstein says, is "one of the greatest opera houses in the world," and he is happy to quote the supporting opinions of experts -- Karl Bo hm, Beverly Sills and Claudio Abbado among them.

Feinstein had been involved with music since he was 5, listening to records on the family phonograph and beating time on the floor with kitchen knives. He still can be seen conducting from his seat in the audience when he is carried away by a performance.

He began to study violin at 10 and took his fiddle with him even when he went to play baseball. "The other members of the team used to call me 'Beethoven,' " he recalls. By 12, he was also composing and playing in a student orchestra. He would walk to school to save car fare and skip lunches to save money that could be spent on opera tickets. After years of study, he concluded that he could never become a great violinist, but he majored in music both for his bachelor's and master's degrees. His minor was in journalism, but he turned down a critic's job at the New York Sun and went into the business end of music instead.

In 1982, Feinstein suffered what is described as a "mild" heart attack. He seems to have recovered completely and is trying to limit himself to a reasonable workload -- not easy for a man of his temperament. He will celebrate his 31st wedding anniversary with his wife, Bernice, in December. She is a musicologist on the faculty of George Washington University who took eight years to earn her doctorate while bringing up three children: John, 29, who works in the sports section of The Washington Post; Margaret, who will be 26 in a few weeks and is planning to go to law school; and Bobby, 23, who is working to become a stockbroker. The Feinsteins live in Northern Virginia. "We have a home on an acre of land in McLean, 15 minutes from downtown," Feinstein says. "There's no way you can do that in New York. We still have a home on Shelter Island in New York, which we use mostly on weekends in summer. We thought of giving it up, but we were reluctant; we have so many good friends there."

Feinstein has few free evenings. When he has, he says, "I usually stay home and watch television -- I love 'Kojak.' I rarely go to the movies; if there's a movie that interests me, I figure I'll be able to see it on television in a few years."

Although he gave up serious ambitions as a violinist, Feinstein continues to play the instrument for relaxation. One of his longtime friends is Isaac Stern; they were born 10 months apart and used to double-date. When Feinstein visits New York, he sometimes uses Stern's apartment and has been known to practice on his violin. He recalls once overhearing Stern's maid talking about him in a phone conversation: " 'He plays the violin too,' she was saying, 'but I must say not as well as Mr. Stern.' "