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Great voices are treasures - and should be guarded

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The performance also featured the New York debut of a promising soprano, Sarah Reese - a sumptuous voice of tremendous potential - all under the auspices of the Long Island Opera Society.

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Vocal longevity used to be the accepted result of proper long-term training (though there have always been tragic exceptions along the way). As an example, a weightlifter cannot be expected to jump from a 50-pound press to a 250-pound press. On the other hand, a singer can actually get through the wrong repertoire for a while - but the results tend to show in the end.

Thus it is not surprising to find Bergonzi, nearing 60, still active. As with all the great singers of his generation and before, he has devoted himself to his art, and has not run around the world singing repertoire that would drive him consistently beyond the limits of his vocal endowment. He was trained in an era when a person was duty-bound to do the best with a God-given gift. It was a question of the ethics of singing and career-building, and it was ingrained.

And now, we have Miss Ricciarelli, temperamentally and vocally ideal for Rossini and certain Donizetti heroines, as well as a few of the lighter Puccini roles, singing instead Tosca and Turandot - roles once exclusively the province of, at the very least, full-fledged lyrico spinto (literally translated ''pushed lyric''), and more appropriately, dramatic sopranos. We have Miss Scotto, the ideal Puccini lyric soprano, singing roles meant only for dramatics. Now both sopranos are afflicted with wobbles and unmanageability of vocal lines. Mr. Carreras has taken the most beautiful lyric tenor voice of the past 25 years and pushed it into the full Italian dramatic repertoire - the tenor roles in ''Turandot'' (on records), ''Il Trovatore,'' ''La Gioconda,'' ''Tosca,'' and now , Halevy's ''La Juive,'' Caruso's last full role and most demanding.

Mr. Domingo now sings roles from Donizetti to Wagner, with the heftiest Verdi thrown in for good measure, all in a very creative fashion, vocally in terms of character creation. On the NBC telecast, he was ''remembering'' Caruso, and at every step of the way, the invited comparison was distressing, at best. But Mr. Domingo flies all over the world singing too frequently, and in roles generally not meant for his voice. But the hard fact is that at what should be his prime, he is having pronounced problems with his voice, and much of this has to be due to his superhuman schedule of extra-operatic commitments, such as TV dates (he's a regular on ''The Tonight Show,'' which means flying to Los Angeles between appearances at, say, the Met). He is also about to make a Hollywood movie (as did Pavarotti last summer).

Even Mr. Pavarotti, who was born to be the finest bel canto specialist of his day, has now lost the sheen and the fluency to fulfill that promise - sacrificed to the desire to sing the hefty repertoire his voice was not meant to tackle. But at least he always gives all he has to a performance, and has become a superstar both by dint of clever management and his own dynamic personality.

Who is responsible? Many groups: conductors, artists' managers, artists themselves. Many a fine lyric singer has been led down the garden path of dramatic roles to ruinous effect, Miss Ricciarelli and Mr. Carreras being the prime current examples. They understandably do not have the courage to say no. Opera and artists' managements should be there to prevent this, but too often they fear they will lose out if they do not acquiesce.

It is, however, only the very people involved in this crazy-wonderful art form who can invoke the moral obligation to stem this catastrophic trend. It is time for them all - and the record companies (or, more accurately, conglomerates) as well - to put power and lucre aside and put artistic integrity to the fore. Then, and only then, can the potentially great voices be nurtured in a consistent, benevolent environment. When they flower, they will then have the sort of long, prosperous careers that will reap remuneration and acclaim rather than forcing it upon them before their times.