O to be a dragon ... Felicitous phenomenon! Marianne Moore

Beyond the doors of the Washington Opera, there be dragons.

Two at the moment, which is remarkable in that not many composers and librettists resort to dragonian measures.

It's true that 1988 was the Chinese Year of the Dragon. And 1989 brought to the Kennedy Center opera's best-known bass dragon, a k a the enchanted giant Fafner, malevolent guardian of the Ring of the Nibelung, in the Deutsche Oper Berlin production of Richard Wagner's "Siegfried."

But no one can recall dragons back-to-back -- or, perhaps, tail-to-tail -- as are presently being experienced with simultaneous productions in the Eisenhower Theater of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and Purcell's "King Arthur."

"Unless you mean performers who behave like dragons," said Thomas Timlin Jr. upon reflection backstage. "Of course, we've had those."

Timlin, a slender, mustachioed fellow of 39, handles the current dragons along with his wife, Martha, 35. In a sense it's a job he's been training for from the beginning. His mother was a headliner ("Blaze Fury") on the old Minsky burlesque circuit, and his first job, at age 8, he says, was as a "catcher" in the wings, fielding bits of spangled costumetossed off by the strippers in the throes of their art.

"I got $10 a week from everyone but Mom," he says.

Dragon-keeping, he says, is somewhat more demanding, due in part to the sheer heft of the beasts. Though smaller than the Berlin Opera's Fafner dragon -- an industrial-strength reptile on tank treads that expired in a shower of sparks, blown fuses and blinking lights -- the "Magic Flute" and "King Arthur" dragons each approach 100 pounds, and require the services of the Timlins in both life and death.

The "Magic Flute" dragon is a nine-foot-tall bat-winged creature of blue fiberglass and foam rubber, one of a whimsical menagerie of Rousseauesque animals whose occasional appearance heightens the dreamlike quality of Zack Brown's sets and Mozart's fantasy opera.

It is given life by Nate Merchant, 21, a senior drama student at Catholic University, who scurries it around in the opera's opening minutes, obeying signs on the beast's plastic peritoneum that say "Pull red {cord} for wings," "Pull yellow for tongue" and "Do not extend tongue when mouth is open!"

The dragon has red electric eyes and red smoke breath, but the breath didn't work on opening night.

The next night the smoke went off all right, remembers Martha Timlin, "but the mouth wasn't open enough after the dragon died, and the smoke went down into the body. Nate was lying there coughing and strangling" until the Timlins could pull his reptilian corpse offstage during the moon-borne entrance of the Queen of Night.

"All I could think," deadpans Martha Timlin, "was, 'Don't let him throw up in there.' "

Merchant says it's all part of the trade. He's been a courtier in "Rigoletto" and a Turkish sea captain in "L'Italiana in Algeri," but the dragon is his favorite role so far. Even if he did audition to be a slave and ended up a reptile.

"The dragon gets more notice than some of the principals," he says. "It's a fun role, but I try to take it seriously. I keep thinking, 'Should I use more wing? Should I give it more tongue?' "

There's also a challenge, he says, in dying.

"I try to fall so as not to break anything on the dragon, but I can't use my hands or knees to brake myself, so once I start to go down, I'm down for the count. We may have lost an ear or something once, but so far we've been pretty lucky."

Compared with the "Magic Flute" dragon, the "King Arthur" dragon is fairly static. Kimm Julian, 36, who plays Merlin, merely "rides" it by wearing it like a swimming pool inner tube. His is also a horizontal instead of a vertical dragon, which makes things a bit easier. It also has more of an Oriental cast, more quizzical than menacing, looking a bit like the offspring of a cross-eyed Mardi Gras sea horse and a Chinese praying mantis -- only costumed in silk organza.

"The main problem is getting him up onto Kimm," says Martha Timlin. "It takes both my husband and me to lift it up onto him, and it's no easy fit. It weighs about 85 pounds, and Kimm's got about a 20-pound robe on under the harness."

Like her husband, Martha Timlin is used to such theatrical challenges. As a child she fetched water for actors backstage at Lisner Auditorium. She made her debut onstage at age 7 as an orphan in Benjamin Britten's opera "Vanessa." Her parents, Jane and Thomas Stanhope, have worked behind the scenes of the Washington Opera since its inception, and helped build the dragon for a 1977 production of "The Magic Flute." "It had bicycle-reflector eyes," Martha Timlin says with satisfaction.

She and her husband met in Detroit as wardrobe dressers for "Ain't Misbehavin,' " have worked with the costumes for the American Ballet Theatre, and soon will take over the wardrobe for the road company of "Starlight Express."

But opera, she says, absorbs her increasingly because "there's so much to the costumes."

Like dragons.

Merchant can remember another dragon he worked with back home in San Francisco in Handel's "Alcina," "but I guess it was really more of a sea serpent." He was a production assistant at the time, already launched on an operatic career he hopes will one day lead to directing.

He saw his first opera, "Aida," as a thoroughly dazzled 10-year-old, he says, but opera itself was already deep in his blood.

"I had the sort of mother who got up at 5 in the morning and put on 'Gotterdammerung,' " he says with a smile. "I probably had no other choice."

Of such stuff are dragons made.