Contemporary artist David Hockney first took his work to the operatic stage in 1975, when he designed the sets for the John Cox production of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," in Glyndebourne, England.

He had ventured into theater before: designing costumes for Alfred Jarry's "Ubu Roi" at the Royal Court in 1966, studying Shakespeare in school, even using the images of stages and curtains in some of his early '60s paintings, such as "Play Within a Play."

However, setting the mood of a production by creating its entire set was new for Hockney, and because "The Rake's Progress" was so successful he decided to continue adapting his art to the theater.

In 1978 Hockney designed the sets for Cox's production of the Mozart opera "The Magic Flute," also performed at Glyndebourne. Hockney combined the traditional Egyptian setting of the story with his hot colors and crisp lines to create an almost cartoonish, volumetric atmosphere.

"It's this childlike simplicity and artistic complexity combined," says Julian Hope, director of the Wolf Trap production of "The Magic Flute." Hope has worked with Hockney on several productions at Glyndebourne. "I think it is the most spectacular, perhaps, of all David Hockney has done."

"The sets have a sort of California look to them, which is Hockney's style," says Hope. "He likes water, you know. Perhaps he's most famous for his series of California swimming pools in the '70s."

Hockney's passion for water is an asset to the production because, it turns out, water is a very important element in the "Magic Flute" plot. Prince Tamino must endure a series of tribulations in his quest to rescue his beloved princess, Pamina, who is held captive by the evil high priest, Sarastro. Once she is saved, the two must endure one more ordeal: the tests of fire and water.

"It's all done with techniques of painting," says Hope. "Hockney produced backdrops and wings. It's really a series of Hockney canvases -- a rather traditional approach to theater.

"And it's pretty bright," he adds. "I think you'll need your Raybans."

"The Magic Flute" will be performed Thursday and Saturday nights at 8:15. The production will be sung in German with English surtitles. Tickets are $13 to $25 and are available at TicketCenter or by calling 432-0200.