Opera singer with Nazi tattoos withdraws from German festival

BERLIN (JTA) — Russian opera singer Evgeny Nikitin has withdrawn from the famous Bayreuth Opera Festival because of Nazi tattoos on his chest and arm.

Nikitin, 39, withdrew days before he was supposed to sing the lead in Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” after archival images of him playing drums in a heavy metal band – chest bared and with shaved head – were shown recently on German television and seen by the Bayreuth festival directors and conductor. Images of a swastika and other far-right symbols were plainly seen on his body, which is covered with tattoos.

Festival spokesperson Peter Emmerich told the German press agency dpa that “this is not business as usual.” The Bayreuth Festival is extremely sensitive to all issues related to the Nazi period, as Adolf Hitler was an admirer of Wagner and frequently attended the festival. The connection to Hitler is a badge of shame that post-war generations of Wagners have tried to confront.

Nikitin was called in to meet with the management on the morning of July 21, at which point he was told about the significance of his tattoos in light of German history. Shortly afterwards Nikitin announced he would drop out of the festival. According to news reports, Nikitin’s understudy, the bass-baritone Samuel Youn, will sing the role on Wednesday, for the festival opening.

A statement from the festival said the singer’s decision to withdraw was in keeping with the festival’s rejection of Nazi ideology and its trappings.

Nikitin later explained that the tattoos were a youthful folly that he regretted. In ensuing years, he had other images tattooed over the swastika, but it remains visible. He told reporters he had not been “aware of the extent of the confusion and hurt that these symbols would trigger, particularly in Bayreuth and in the context of the festival history.”

Emmerich said the festival directors – the composer’s great-granddaughters, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier – normally do not pay attention to how a singer decorates his body. “We hire a voice, a singer,” he told dpa. But this case was different, he said.

The Bayreuth festival dates back to 1876. To this day Wagner’s music is eschewed by many because of the admiration Hitler held for the composer and because of the composer’s alleged anti-Semitism. The first post-war festival was held in 1951.

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