EVERY year, Arts Festival general manager Tseng Sun-man suffers agonies of doubt over the festival's programme cover. This year was no exception. ''I think it's great, but you never know. What if people find it frightening?'' Tseng said with a worried glance at Jeff McBride's ripped face. The answer came from the box office: brisk sales immediately tickets went on sale for Mask, Myth and Magic (Sha Tin Town Hall, February 9 and Arts Centre Shouson Theatre, February 11-14) though don't despair, tickets still remain for the man hailed as ''a conjurer of genius.'' In April, 1992, McBride won the coveted Magician of the Year award from the Society of American Magicians, adding to an already bulging list of honours. What makes him so exceptional? Oriental mystique is one answer. Soon after going professional at the age of 14, the native New Yorker went to Japan where he studied karate, judo, aikido and Kabuki theatre with top masters, and developed the spellbinding act that has won him acclaim worldwide. To his martial arts skills, McBride adds dazzling sleight-of-hand, Houdini-like stunts, hi-tech wizardry and an electrifying stage presence which owes much to the occult. The esoteric is clearly a big drawcard. Both shows by Kazuo Ohno, the 86-year-old master of Butoh, are sold out. JAMES Galway and Cleo Laine. What a combination - and what a brilliant opportunity to see two of the world's musical favourites when they present their pop concert at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium next Tuesday. The smoky-voiced singer, who once worked as an apprentice hairdresser in London, and the flautist, who grew up in one of Belfast's poorer areas, are also giving concerts of their own - Laine at the Cultural Centre Concert Hall on Monday and Galway (this year's Festival Artist-in-Residence) at the same venue on February 12. As usual, Laine will appear with husband John Dankworth's group. The other consummate entertainer will play works by Schubert, Poulenc, Debussy and Mozart. CHILD prodigies often fizzle. Hollywood-born Gary Karr, who went professional at the age of 11, just got better and better. By his 30s he also had America's unofficial vote for Most Entertaining Musician and had fulfilled all his promises and more: the finest double-bass player alive in the opinion of many. ''I play as if I'm singing through the instrument,'' Karr said in 1985 during a visit to Hongkong. Nothing has changed. The virtuoso still coaxes sounds of the most astonishing sweetness from his outsized instrument, and to the delight of audiences, continues to ham it up. Accompanying him at his Arts Festival recital (City Hall Concert Hall, Monday) will be Harmon Lewis. The gifted pianist, organist and harpsichordist has worked with Karr since 1972. ''MY parents? They were horrified when I told them I wanted to go on the stage,'' South African-born actress Estelle Kohler recalls. Kohler got her way and made it all the way to Royal Shakespeare Company which has cast her as Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors (APA Lyric Theatre till Tuesday). Playing her spouse is Desmond Barrit, winner of the 1992 Olivier Award for Best Comedy Performance. Supporting them in the Shakespearean romp, whose costumes and sets also won Olivier Awards for designer Mark Thompson, are some of Britain's finest actors. Top talent also abounds in the Paris Opera Ballet, presenting Rudolf Nureyev's Don Quixote at the Cultural Centre Grand Theatre from February 11-14. In the title role is Patrick Dupond, artistic director of the famous company - and successor to the late, great Rudi. Rounding out the second week of the Arts Festival will be Chung Ying Theatre's The Legend of the Story Teller, based on the Ming Dynasty character, in a poem by Taiwan's Lo Chih Cheng, and two more musical treats - Austria's distinguished Camerata Academica Salzburg and America's Goodtime Jazz Band, led by Bill Allred.