So what will they call it? "Three Tenors Three"? Or something cinematic, like "The Revenge of the Three Tenors Strikes Back?"

Earlier this month, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras -- the patented "Three Tenors" -- announced that they will join forces for a five-date world tour beginning next summer. They'll sing in Tokyo in June, London and New York in July, Munich in August, and Melbourne, Australia, in March 1997. Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine will conduct all performances. And Tibor Rudas, the Hungarian-born impresario who also brought us the first two "Three Tenors" events, has said there are no plans for any recordings or telecasts.

We'll see about that. After all, the first "Three Tenors" disc, released on the London label, became the best-selling classical recording of all time -- 10 million copies and counting. (Nothing else is even in the running for top place, by the way, not even "Chant"; a classical record is considered a smash hit if it sells 50,000 units worldwide, and only a handful of discs have ever gone above 1 million.)

Meanwhile, it is estimated that as many as a billion people may have seen and heard portions of the second "Three Tenors" event, which took place in Los Angeles in the summer

of 1994 and was sent out through the world via cable, audio and video. (One wonders how our public television stations managed their fund-raisers without it.) As such, the idea that a world tour by these particular gentlemen will go without any sort of marketable preservation requires a certain leap of faith.

If that sounds cynical, let it pass. A lot of people in and around the classical music business are somewhat cynical about the "Three Tenors" phenomenon. Part of this can be explained as plain old envy, of course: It is estimated that Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras each earned well in excess of $1 million for their participation in the first two concerts -- try working that out on a per-minute (or per-note!) basis.

But there is something else, too: a puritan, "high art" resistance to the brash, big-bucks, show biz hype of it all, the uncomfortable sense that three of our most important artists are descending into a sort of celestial vaudeville act. Too much may be made of these qualms; after all, Domingo and Pavarotti appear regularly in more serious venues, in opera houses throughout the world. And as Domingo put it at the London press conference when the tour was announced, "There's nothing wrong with being commercial. It would be hypocritical to say we're not looking forward to success." To be sure.

Those of us who write about music are often asked to provide a quick ranking of the "Three Tenors" (I use the quotation marks advisedly; there are many more than three tenors out there, including a few who can legitimately be discussed in the same sentence as The Three). The shortest answer is that they are all great artists in different ways. The slightly longer answer: Pavarotti has the most beautiful voice. Domingo is the most intelligent and versatile musician. And Carreras is a breed apart -- an elegant lyric tenor who cannot really be compared with the other two, not due to any deficiency in his artistry but rather to some fundamental differences in the size of the voice and the way he uses it.

Nobody doubts the respective talents of Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. But do these circuses represent them at their best, or even near their best? There's a very short answer to this one -- absolutely not.

The famous arias are rolled out in a perfunctory manner -- scarcely comparable to the tenors' best studio recordings of these beloved snippets -- and the novelty numbers are often downright bad. (Does anybody really think these guys do "Singin' in the Rain" better than Gene Kelly, "My Way" better than Frank Sinatra or, for that matter, even "Those Were the Days" better than Mary Hopkin?)

But those who insist upon judging "Three Tenors" events on strictly musical grounds are missing the point. Let's not forget that the first teaming took place as a musical finale for the 1990 World Cup soccer finals and that the second concert was held in L.A.'s Dodger Stadium. The "Three Tenors" extravaganzas have at least as much to do with competition as they do with the art of music; polite demurrals from the tenors to the contrary, these are friendly, civilized, late-20th-century gladiatorial bouts. In short, when you think "Three Tenors," don't think Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and diamond tiaras. Think Super Bowl.

And so let's take a closer look at the players, starting off with the one, the only, the inimitable Luciano Pavarotti. At his best, he combines the honeyed sweetness of a lyric tenor with a heft and amplitude that is all but unprecedented in this range. Pavarotti is now 60 years old, an age at which many of his colleagues are considering retirement (indeed, by 60, tenors Enrico Caruso, Jussi Bjoerling and James McCracken, to name just three, were long dead). Yet he still sings with a vocal freshness that is little short of astonishing. Put it this way: Were he to make his debut tonight at the Kennedy Center, the word would be out by tomorrow morning that a major new star had arrived.

Pavarotti is not perfect. He can be a decidedly lazy interpreter. In 1992, he actually lip-synced a concert in Modena, Italy, moving his lips while one of his recordings was played (maybe he should actually watch "Singin' in the Rain" instead of just singing the title tune and heed what happened to the evil Lina Lamont). The previous year, he recorded Verdi's "Otello" -- one of the most challenging roles in the repertory -- even though he'd never sung it in an opera house and seemed to be learning it on the job. And on Pavarotti's occasional off nights, he charges through even the music he knows with a bored expediency.

Still, he has captured the public imagination as no tenor since Caruso. Part of this may be attributed to shrewd handling by his manager, Herbert Breslin (probably the closest thing we have to a P.T. Barnum figure in this prosaic age), who has ensured his client's ubiquity in the media -- whether making spaghetti, "doing" Las Vegas or introducing Neapolitan songs into China's Forbidden City. In an era of celebrity journalism, Pavarotti has been willing to play the game -- and it has paid off, spectacularly. While connoisseurs debate the fine points of his artistry, thousands of other fans are content to bask in the glow of what seems a sweet, huggy, overweight Italian guy who is proud of his pasta and loves to sing. Call it charisma, call it marketing -- whatever it is, it's persuasive.

Domingo is now 54; he, too, is at the height of his powers. His voice is somewhat harder than Pavarotti's, lacking the sunny luster, but it is also stronger, more clarion and infinitely more adaptable. Domingo continues to sing the gentler, more lyrical leads in the repertory -- Don Jose in "Carmen," Rodolfo in "La Boheme," Manrico in "Il Trovatore" -- but he is also the leading Otello of our time. And the Spanish tenor is now moving into the heaviest repertory of all, the German heldentenor roles of Richard Wagner.

Simply getting through a grueling role such as Parsifal or Siegmund (in "Die Walkure" ) -- making oneself heard above the huge Wagnerian orchestra and projecting to that fabled person in the back row -- is an accomplishment in itself. To make music at the same time is rare indeed. Yet that is what Domingo does, again and again. He does not shout; no matter how loudly he may sing, it is always still singing -- and it is usually singing of a rare power and rapture.

In all, Domingo has appeared in more than 100 operatic roles. Last year, he estimated that he could sing any one of about 25 or 30 of those roles at any time, with no preparation whatsoever, and another 50 if he had a week or so to get ready. But Domingo is more than just a singer. In the past few years he has proven a sensitive and increasingly skillful conductor and he is now the artistic director-designate of the Washington Opera.

Is he doing too much? Domingo seems to be able to maintain this breakneck schedule. Like every artist, he has an bad night now and again. But I cannot remember an occasion when he has seemed less than fully prepared or less than intent on doing his very best. He is a deeply serious, enormously thoughtful musician.

As mentioned before, Carreras doesn't really belong in this grouping. He is a light, dulcet tenor with a suave, dapper voice -- an elegant miniaturist, if you like, rather than a heavyweight champion. This is the reason that he often comes off a distinct third in these gargantuan songfests. No offense to Carreras is intended; size is only one criterion in a musical evaluation. A Chopin prelude is shorter than a Mahler symphony -- and will always be drowned out by it -- but who is to say which has more intrinsic merit?

In any event, we must count ourselves very lucky that we still have Carreras at all. In 1987, when he was 40 years old, he was stricken with acute lymphocytic leukemia. Only one person in 10 with this particular strain survives for five years after diagnosis. Carreras credits the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, with saving his life.

He entered the hospital in November 1987 for a bone marrow transplant, followed by extensive radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Trembling and nauseated, he stood in a tiny cubicle three times a day, 20 minutes at a time, for grueling experimental treatment. He described this in a 1989 interview: "I felt so miserable, so weak, that I tried to forget where I was. To pass the time, I began to sing, very softly, songs and arias. I knew just how long they were, from the timings of my recordings, and so I knew how much time was passing and how soon it would be over."

In July 1988, Carreras made his first appearance after his illness, singing to a audience of 150,000 in his native Barcelona. His first North American appearance was a benefit concert in Seattle for the Hutchinson Center, followed by an emotional (and acclaimed) recital at Carnegie Hall. Although he is now said to be in good health -- fully recovered, not merely in remission -- Carreras has been very careful about the invitations he has accepted in the past few years, and his public appearances have been few. Indeed, it is mostly through "Three Tenors" events that younger listeners know his work -- a particularly unfair fate for a cherishable artist who simply isn't presented at his best in these get-togethers.

And it is important to remember that "Three Tenors" events are just that -- events. Those who buy the least expensive seats (about $50 for the New York concert at the Meadowlands on July 20) will likely be seated in the farthest recesses of stadium Siberia. Realistically, you're not really going to be able to hear Pavarotti, Domingo or Carreras from that distance (nobody can sing that loudly, thank God). Instead, you will be bombarded by an amplified, artificial representation of the three microscopic men onstage, much less faithfully reproduced than what you can possess at home, forever and ever, on cassette or compact disc (and you can purchase several hours of each singer for $50, let alone with the top price of $500 per ticket).

Such caveats are beside the point. It's a little like trying to talk a friend out of going to a big game tonight. After all, one might argue, she'll be able to find out the score from the newspaper tomorrow morning. Absolutely right -- and absolutely irrelevant.

Those who will attend "Three Tenors: The Saga Continues" -- or whatever this rematch is ultimately dubbed -- will be there because they want some personal connection, however distant, with their idols. They will want to have been there on a summer evening when Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras shared a stage and sang out into the night. And what's wrong with that? CAPTION: Like a Rolling Stone: Domingo on the big screen at the 1994 Dodger Stadium concert.