The head of the Bavarian State Opera, one of Europe’s leading opera houses, described the way the matter was handled by Bayreuth’s co-chiefs Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier as “dishonest” and a clear attempt to draw attention away from the festival’s own murky past.
“The affair is more a problem for Bayreuth and the Wagner family than for the singer,” opera chief Nikolaus Bachler said after Russian bass-baritone Yevgeny Nikitin pulled out of his hotly anticipated debut at this year’s Bayreuth Festival just days before the premiere.
The 38-year-old rising star of the prestigious Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg was to have sung the title role in a brand-new production of “The Flying Dutchman”.
He is now to be replaced by a Korean colleague, Samuel Youn, at the glitzy opening night on Wednesday, as well as at all the other performances.
Nikitin, who played drums in a Russian heavy metal band in his youth, has said that his tattoos – two different Nordic runes used by Adolf Hitler’s SS during World War II and a swastika that the singer appears to have attempted to cover up with another tattoo – had no political significance for him.
In an unusually sharply-worded reaction, Munich opera chief Bachler said: “It is dishonest that the foolishness of a 16-year-old rock singer, who has long regretted his actions and tried to undo them, is being punished by the Wagner family.
“They are clearly pointing the finger at someone else because they have a problem with their own past,” the statement said.
Nikitin not only clearly regretted the incident but had expressed repentance as well – something that Bachler believes “the Wagner family have never expressed in the past 50 years,” said the 61-year-old Austrian.
“The whole affair is extremely ugly and shows how very much present the past still is.”
The Munich opera had no such problems with Nikitin who would appear in another Wagner opera, “Lohengrin”, at the Bavarian State Opera in November, Bachler said.
By contrast, German star conductor Christian Thielemann, who has conducted at Bayreuth more than 100 times and is seen as the festival’s unofficial general music director, defended the uproar over Nikitin.
“A swastika is a no-go, not only in Bayreuth. It wouldn’t be acceptable in Australia, either,” Thielemann, who is conducting the new production of “The Flying Dutchman”, told the Berlin regional daily BZ in an interview.
The conductor blamed Nikitin’s agents for not having warned the singer of the scandal his tattoos might cause.
The affair erupted after Nikitin’s tattoos were the subject of a special feature shown on an arts programme of the ZDF public television on Friday.
The Bayreuth Festival was founded by Richard Wagner to showcase his operas.
Wagner, a notorious anti-Semite, was Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer and after the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, Hitler became a regular guest at the Festspielhaus built on Bayreuth’s fabled “Green Hill”.