Timothy Chang may have been a soft-spoken resident of suburban McLean, but he only felt truly alive, he often said, in the Confucian realm of traditional Chinese opera, with its red-faced demons, righteous, sword-swinging heroes and suicidal heroines who, in the final scene, hurl themselves into the Yangtze.

It is a world of bravery, magic and passion, neatly contained within ancient, highly stylized scripts. And it is the world in which Chang met Sanchen Patricia Chou, one of the fellow opera devotees who served as a substitute family for the childless widower. Some believe it is also the world in which he killed Chou's husband--something Chang may have seen as the ultimate honorable act--to free the woman he regarded as a goddaughter from a miserable marriage.

"He thought he was like the Three Musketeers, righting a wrong," said a close friend and fellow former Taiwanese Embassy worker, who has visited Chang in the Montgomery County detention center. Chang has been held there on a murder charge since Jason Chou was shot to death May 18. A Montgomery County grand jury is scheduled to consider an indictment against Chang this month.

"But he has just made everything much, much worse. Such a cruel act like this is not the act of a righteous man. It is not the Confucian way," the friend said.

As did much in his life, Tien Shin "Timothy" Chang's relationship with Patricia Chou began with opera. "She was performing," said Patricia Chou's attorney, Robert L. Koven. "And he was assisting."

They belonged to different opera companies--he the Han Sheng and she the rival Greater Washington club--but they came to be friends. Chang often talked of her beautiful voice. But for Chou, opera was an avocation, a hobby, a chance for the National Institutes of Health statistician and mother of three to stay connected with her Chinese roots.

Chang, 74, and Patricia Chou, 49, often dined together, along with others, many said. "He spoke highly of her, said she had a good voice," one friend recalled. Patricia Chou, through her attorney, acknowledged that her husband appeared to have become suspicious of her friendship with Timothy Chang.

"She does not have any idea why [Chang] did what he did," said Koven, Chou's attorney. "She is stunned."

"Never was it contemplated, discussed, dreamed of, that Mr. Chang would be doing her a favor by taking away the father of her children," he said. Nor was she aware of any blackmail efforts by her husband, as Chang alleges, Koven said.

Chang's legal team, which includes an expert in the insanity defense, would not allow him to be interviewed for this article. Patricia Chou's attorney, who stresses that that she is not a suspect in the case, allowed her to make only limited comments.

But the friends and family of Chang and Patricia Chou, and others close to the case, liken the pair's tale to a Chinese opera, which tangles painful personal histories with the tortured narrative of modern China and rings with the clash of two cultures.

Chang was fascinated by the traditional instruments of Chinese opera and became a competent amateur player of the er hu, an ancient two-stringed violin. He had a knack for conjuring the magical world of opera anywhere, in his own basement music room or in the homes of the amateur opera devotees he visited regularly in Potomac, Honolulu and Taiwan.

As a child in China, Chang was exposed to similar at-home opera gatherings organized by his father, also an opera buff, according to friends. As an adult, fellow opera devotees were his true family. Many were expatriates like himself, who fled the Chinese mainland at the time of the Communist takeover and worked in Washington for the government of Taiwan.

Chang attended college in the United States, worked as a reporter and then had what he always proudly described as his "diplomatic career," according Norman Fu, a reporter for the China Times, who has known Chang for years.

But that period of Chang's life--a few years as social secretary to the Taiwanese ambassador in Washington, less than a year as Taiwan's cultural attache to Belgium--was brief. The United States and the rest of the world shifted their positions in the 1970s and formally recognized the People's Republic of China as the true China. People like Chang lost their footing and never quite regained it.

"He seemed to be talented. He shouldn't have just worked as a social secretary," said Fu. "It seemed like a waste of his talent."

Chang gave the restaurant business a try (he was co-owner of a Chinese restaurant in Washington for a few years), and he dabbled in real estate, but he never quite found his professional calling.

Instead, he threw himself into the cultural pursuits of the classical Chinese gentleman. He founded and headed the Washington area Chinese Writers' Association and wrote seven books, mostly personal recollections and humorous sketches. He gave copies to old friends and recent acquaintances alike. He designated separate parts of his McLean house for writing, music and painting. He even gave his home a name, "No Retirement Abode," seemingly chosen to convey the seriousness of his cultural pursuits.

But opera was always primary among these pursuits. Friends say Chang learned to play not just the er hu but many other ancient Chinese instruments as well. He traveled so frequently to visit opera friends, some of them fellow former Taiwan government officials, that his McLean neighbors assumed he was traveling on business.

"With One Violin I Wandered the World All Over," is how one friend translated the title of one of his books.

Another friend recalls the lonely figure of Chang playing the er hu at the funeral of his wife, Donna, in 1987.

"He told me, 'I am very, very lonely,' " said Ye Ding, a member of the Beijing Opera Club in Hawaii, who recalls Chang playing without pause until 2 a.m. at one such gathering on the island, about a year ago. "He said, 'This is my happiest time--when I am engulfed in Chinese opera.' "

The Monkey King, in his bright yellow tunic and puffy red pants, leapt onto the stage, cocked his head and widened his eyes at the latest horror on his journey to India to seek the Buddhist scriptures.

"Now I have entered the Bottomless Pit," he sang, in a high piercing voice. "The path is dark and dangerous!"

Soon the stage was awhirl with women singing and dancing, the antics of a snout-nosed character named Pigsy and the clatter of sword fights and handsprings. Barely visible behind the curtains, stage right, were seated musicians playing gongs, drums, cymbals and the er hu.

The recent performance of excerpts of the Beijing style opera "The Monkey King" at the Montgomery College Performing Arts Center was one of several held in the Washington area each year by three separate opera companies.

The audience of about 400 beamed with delight and applauded madly. Projectors flashed the dialogue--in Chinese characters and in English--on either side of the stage.

"It's my first time, but I'm just doing this to keep Chinese culture alive with my son," said Leo Wang, 42, of College Park. His 6-year-old son, Jeffrey Wang, who also attends Chinese Saturday school at a local church, was sitting beside him, drawing a picture of Pigsy in a loose-leaf notebook.

It was in this world of opera that Patricia Chou knew Chang best.

She also came from a Chinese opera-loving family. Both her father and her sister were active in opera in Taiwan, where Chou was born. A statistician working for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Chou considered her amateur opera singing a hobby, family members said, but it was also the source of many close friends. Among them was Timothy Chang, whom she describes as not just a godfather figure but "part of her support network."

By all accounts, Jason Chou, 51, had little interest in opera and socializing and was more focused on his six-year-old medical imaging company. Chou "didn't always know the best way to show his love," his son Jeremy Chou said at his father's funeral, but "how hard he tried to give his all for those he loved."

In a recent interview, Patricia Chou would not discuss possible problems in her marriage. "There were some good times and some bad times," she said. But the Chous' deep discord was well-known in the community and even alluded to by family members at Chou's funeral.

"To me, [Chang] is an honorable figure, very reputable," Patricia Chou replied when asked by a reporter to describe the man she refers to as "a mentor, a godfather figure."

How can Chou call him honorable after Chang has--by his own admission, according to police--killed the father of her three children?

After a moment's consultation with her attorney, Chou, 49, replied, "I am still in shock, and it is difficult to know what to think."

Even the friends whose sharpest disparagement of Chang until now might have been "dilettante" are struggling to picture Chang as an executioner.

Prosecutors say Chang bought a gun and practiced shooting it several times during the weeks before the shooting. Witnesses said Chang was agitated as he arrived at the Rockville headquarters of Jason Chou's company, Imacom Inc. Moments after Chang was ushered into a conference room with Chou, shots were heard by workers in nearby offices. Prosecutors say Chang shot Chou point blank--firing five shots, then reloading and firing a sixth.

Police say Chang told them he shot Jason Chou because the younger man accused him of having an illicit affair with his wife and threatened to expose the humiliating behavior to the Chinese community unless Chang paid him $650,000. Chang has told authorities that Patricia Chou was simply his surrogate daughter or gan nu er, part of a Chinese tradition of formally designating younger people as goddaughters or godsons. Friends said Chang used the expression to describe his relationship with many younger women.

"Whenever he comes, he always stays with his gan nu er here," said Ye Ding, a member of the Beijing Opera Club of Hawaii.

"Chinese opera is very popular with the ladies, and he is such an enthusiast," Ye said said of Chang. "Amateurs are always glad to see him. When he comes, we will have a special occasion."

CAPTION: In a scene from the opera "The Monkey King," the title character is attacked by two "rats."

CAPTION: Timothy Chang is accused of killing Jason Chou, whose wife, Patricia, shares Chang's love of opera.

CAPTION: Jason Chou was killed at his Rockville business. Timothy Chang says Chou tried to blackmail him.