WASHINGTON IS experiencing its first "surtitled" opera in the production of "La Boheme" that opened over the weekend at the Kennedy Center. Surtitles, as the name implies, are an elevated version of subtitles. Rather than appearing below, say, a confusing French movie, they appear above an opera, the libretto being projected onto a screen above the proscenium, line by line, in translation.

This is fine if you want to know in detail what an opera is about. But sometimes you don't. Who hasn't thrilled to some rapturous passage again and again, only to consult the libretto one day and find that it translates as follows:

"What are you doing, Parcheesus?"

"I am scaling fish, Mercutio."

"It is strange that you use a butter knife to do so, my cherished friend."

"Such are the ways of my family."

In the past it might have been enough for most of us to have the plot patiently explained by an avuncular figure such as Milton Cross, and then to let the lovely sound carry us along without undue complication toward a finish that might involve a killing in a Sicilian village or the twilight of the gods. Many of us, dutifully following an opera line by line, are likely to find the dialogue a somewhat creakier vehicle than the music in our passage toward this goal.

Still, as The Post's Joseph McLellan reported of the opening night of "La Boheme," for perhaps the first time, everybody in the house was getting the jokes. This meant that the opera snobs in the audience didn't have the satisfaction of being the only ones to laugh out loud at the right places, which may in itself be sufficient reason for using surtitles.