“I was not aware of the extent of the irritation and offence these signs and symbols would cause, particularly in Bayreuth given the context of the festival’s history,” wrote bass-baritone Yevgeny Nikitin, 38, in a statement posted on the festival’s website on Saturday. “As a result, I have decided not to appear at the Bayreuth Festival.”
The Murmansk-born singer from St. Petersburg’s prestigious Mariinsky Theatre, had been scheduled to make his debut on Wednesday in the title role of a new production of “The Flying Dutchman,” at the prestigious opera festival dedicated exclusively to Richard Wagner’s works.
But after a German television programme drew attention to the singer’s controversial tattoos – one of which includes a Swastika motif, now hidden under other patterns – Nikitin informed organisers he had decided not to appear, leaving the production without their leading man.
German public television ZDF’s culture magazine Aspekte aired a feature on Friday about the Nazi symbol tattooed on Nikitin’s chest. After this, said the singer, he was “confronted with questions about the tattoos, their background and their meaning.”
The festival organisers said in their own statement that on hearing about the reports they immediately sought a meeting with Nikitin.
“I had them done in my youth,” Nikitin said. “It was a big mistake and I wish I’d never done it.”
Nikitin’s “decision to pull out of the role is fully in line with our policy of completely rejecting Nazi ideology in any shape or form,” the statement said, adding that the festival organisers “accepted the full consequences” of the last-minute move.
Nevertheless, the production’s director, Jan Philipp Gloger, said the artistic damage would be “immense, even when a replacement has been found and familiarised himself with the production.”
On Friday, the Bild daily ran an interview with the heavily-tattooed Nikitin, who was once a drummer in a Russian heavy metal band, headlined “Would You Go To The Opera With This Man?” But that article did not pick up on the Nazi associations of his tattoos.
Nikitin will now leave Bayreuth under a cloud, wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung on Saturday. And with the curtain due to go up on the festival and the new production of “The Flying Dutchman” on Wednesday, organisers effectively have just three days to find a new singer for the title role.
The Bayreuth Festival, the world’s oldest summer music festival, was founded by Wagner, a notorious anti-Semite, as a showcase for his operas and he had the famous Festspielhaus theatre built to his own designs.
Wagner was Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer and after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Hitler became a regular guest at the Festspielhaus built on Bayreuth’s fabled “Green Hill.”
The Nazi dictator also became a close friend of Winifred Wagner, the widow of the composer’s son Siegfried. Hitler was affectionately called “Uncle Wolf” by her sons, Wolfgang and Wieland, who went on to reinvent and re-launch the festival after the end of World War II.
While Bayreuth’s heads Katharina Wagner, 34, and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 67, have pledged to open up festival archives to independent historians to fully explore its Nazi past, the topic remains extremely sensitive.
The glitzy opening night is also traditionally attended by Germany’s political and social elite – the appearance of a singer brandishing Nazi tattoos would have been a huge embarrassment.