21 July 2012
Bass-Baritone Evgeny Nikitin Withdraws from Bayreuth Performances Following Report of Swastika Tattoo
Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin has withdrawn from upcoming performances of a new production of Der Fliegende Holländer at Germany's Bayreuth Festival after it was reported by a German state television program that the singer has a large swastika as well as other Nazi iconography tattooed on his chest.
According to a spokesperson for the festival, Nikitin withdrew from what would have been his debut performances at the festival following discussions with its organizers on Saturday. The production of Holländer — the only new staging presented by Bayreuth this season — is scheduled to open the festival on Wednesday evening and will be conducted by Christian Thielemann. According to a festival spokesperson, Nikitin's withdrawal was "in line with the festival leadership's consistent rejection of any form of Nazi ideas" and was made after organizers familiarized the singer with the "the connotations of these symbols in connection with German history."
The Bayreuth Festival, which each summer presents the operas of Richard Wagner, has long sought to shed any vestiges of its uncomfortable historical associations with Nazism. The music of Wagner, himself an outspoken anti-Semite, was appropriated by the Nazis, and Winifred Wagner — the composer's daughter-in-law and the festival's principal administrator during World War II — was a personal friend of Adolf Hitler, who became the festival's preeminent patron and booster during the Third Reich. Beginning in 1933, the entire Nazi leadership apparatus annually attended the festival's performances.
In addition to the large swastika, Nikitin's tattoos reportedly include an Algiz — a proto-Germanic rune co-opted by the Nazis and used on Sturmabteilung uniforms. Images of the tattoos — which were apparently largely covered over by other tattoos — were seen during a broadcast of the ZDF German Television program Aspekte on Friday. Nikitin, 38, claims that he chose the images from books about Nordic mythology and was unaware at the time of their Nazi context.
"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," the bass-baritone said in a reportedly statement released by the festival. "I had them done in my youth. It was a big mistake and I wish I'd never done it. The symbols have absolutely no political significance for me, but a spiritual one. I was never a member of a political party and am still not today." The singer later posted a statement to the website of the Mariinsky Theater, claiming that the swastika was actually part of an unfinished eight-point star, and that he had always been antipathetic towards National Socialism.
In a later interview with the New York Times, Nikitin reasserted his claim that the image was an unfinished eight-point star: "I am an artist, and I came up with it on my own," he is quoted as saying. "It's just my fantasy. It's just an eight-pointed star with a shield on it, an ax, a sword crossed with a helmet on top. What is wrong with that?" When asked why he had initially acknowledged in the statement released by Bayreuth that the image had been a swastika, the baritone told the Times, "When I told them the truth, as I am telling you right now, the administration of Bayreuth told me that we can't publish it, because nobody's going to believe you. [...] I read the statement and said 'fine,' and left," Nikitin said of the quote released following his withdrawal from the festival performances. "Because at that point I was so disturbed by everything else, I didn't care. Since I was leaving, I gave them carte blanche to say what they wanted to preserve the festival."
Nikitin was born and raised in Murmansk and began singing at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater under the tutelage of conductor Valery Gergiev while he was still a student. He performed in many of the world's top opera houses, including the Paris Opera, the Théâtre du Châtelet, Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Zurich Opera and Valencia's Palau de les Arts. New York audiences have seen him perform in the Metropolitan Opera's productions of War and Peace, the company's Stravinsky triple-bill, Das Rheingold, La Bohème, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Elektra and Boris Godunov.
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