The Washington Opera is scheduled to start its season Saturday night, with or without an orchestra, with Verdi's "Don Carlo." On the same evening, in the Baird Auditorium, soprano Clamma Dale will give a recital including Lee Hoiby's brief, witty, one-person opera "The Italian Lesson" based on Ruth Draper's well-known monologue. Other noteworthy vocal activity will include the Baltimore Consort, performing under the auspices of the Folger Consort, next weekend at the Folger Library; the University of Maryland Chorus, today in the Memorial Chapel; the Choral Arts Society, today at the Kennedy Center; the Arlington Unitarian Choir, tonight at the Arlington Unitarian Church; and a Gershwin/Weill program featuring Charles Williams, Tuesday at Mount Vernon College.

James Conlon will be the National Symphony's guest conductor this week. Music of Swiss composers will be featured in a concert (free for students, $10 for others) by the Amorartis Chamber Choir and Orchestra, Saturday night in Gaston Hall. Also worth noting: the National Gallery Orchestra, tonight; the Asaph Ensemble, tonight at the National Presbyterian Church; and the Catholic University Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Wednesday night at St. Matthew's Cathedral.

Harpsichordist William Neil will perform Saturday night at the Corcoran Gallery. Other keyboard programs this week will feature pianists Dmitry Rachmanov, today at the Phillips Collection, and Kenneth Paul King, Wednesday at noon at the Martin Luther King Library.

Chamber music highlights of the week will include a "From a Paris Salon" program, Saturday night in Dumbarton Church; the Shanghai Quartet Saturday night at the University of Maryland; the American Camerata, tonight at UDC; cellist Matt Haimovitz, Tuesday night in the Terrace Theater; the Sunrise Quartet, Tuesday night in the National Museum for Women in the Arts; guitarist Luiz Zea, Wednesday night at the Organization of American States; and the Eroica Trio, Friday night at the Corcoran Gallery. DANCE

For the first time outside Tibet, "Vajrakilaya: Dance of the Mystic Dagger," an ancient Buddhist ritual performed by 10 Tibetan monks, will be presented at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts this evening, leading off the '91-92 "Stories, Myths and Legends" series presented by District Curators. The Mino Nicolas Dance Gallery and guest artist Nina Watt will perform choreography by Doris Humphrey, Eleanor King, Alwin Nikolais, Anna Sokolow and Nicolas, in a joint concert with pianist Aglaia Koras-Bain at Lisner Auditorium Tuesday evening. Liz Lerman/Dance Exchange will present the Washington premiere of Lerman's "The Good Jew?," a multimedia dance work exploring themes of identity and relationships of individuals to communities, at the Terrace Theater Friday and Saturday nights. Poet-performance artist Kwelismith, with members of the Anacostia Repertory Company, will present Kwelismith's "Blues Print," a multimedia meditation on the 1985 bombing of Philadelphia's MOVE headquarters, at Mount Vernon College's Hand Chapel Friday and Saturday nights. Sean Curran, of New York's Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Company, and Baltimore's Kathy Wildberger join forces for a program of choreography by Kelly Wicke Davis, Curran and Wildberger at Dance Place Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. POP MUSIC

Britain's next wave is crashing here this week: Blur and Slowdive tonight at the 9:30 club, followed by (Ireland's) Fatima Mansions and Live tomorrow night; Tuesday, the Bayou hosts Five Thirty and Diesel Park West.

Quirky and melodic, Texas's Timbuk 3 shares a Bayou bill tomorrow with the Walkabouts.

R&B legend LaVern Baker takes some time off from "Black and Blue" for a Thursday through Sunday engagement at Blues Alley.

Chuck Berry's righthand piano man Johnny Johnson finally shows up at the Birchmere Friday, along with harp wizard Charlie Musselwhite.

Funkin' rock, California style: It's the Red Hot Chili Peppers, with the languid Smashing Pumpkins and Mother Love Bone survivors Pearl Jam, Saturday at AU's Bender Arena.