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Germany

Swastika tattoo prompts Bayreuth star to cancel

Following controversy sparked by singer Evgeny Nikitin's swastika tattoo, the bass-baritone abruptly cancelled his engagement at the Bayreuth Festival. The Russian had been cast in the lead role of "The Flying Dutchman."

At the main rehearsal of "The Flying Dutchman" in mid-July, to which journalists were admitted, there was tension in the air. No scenes showing the titular hero in the new production were released.

"How can you do a 'Dutchman' without the Dutchman?" asked disappointed TV teams. The singer was also missing at group interviews. He had given many interviews ahead of the festival - including one with Reinhold Jaretzky of ZDF television, whose report "Heavy Metal in Bayreuth: From Rocker to Opera Star" provoked the scandal.

What did organizers know?

A still from a ZDF TV report showing the singer's tattoo

A German TV report (ZDF) revealed the singer's tattoo

Festival organizers do not vet "what somebody wears under his shirt" said Peter Emmerich, press spokesman for the Bayreuth Festival. They had only "hired a voice," he explained, noting that skin color and nationality are also irrelevant for casting decisions.

However, the singer, in an interview with DW, revealed that he was asked a year ago to have all his tattoos photographed and to submit the pictures to the festival, which he'd done. Nikitin had initially assumed that his body ornaments were to be "integrated into the artistic concept."

Speculation on just how things unfolded is now running rampant in Bayreuth. Did other factors also play a role in the cancellation - artistic tensions with the production team or dissatisfaction with his singing? Or was the soloist stressed beyond his limits in the run-up to the premiere on July 25?

"I'm petrified," Nikitin had admitted to DW. "Because they will certainly not take any mercy on me in Bayreuth. It's a real test."

At the Wagner festival, sensitivity to Nazi symbolism generally runs high now in light of Bayreuth's history. Adolf Hitler was once a regular guest at the annual festival, and Wagner is known to have published anti-Semitic views.

To better come to terms with the past, current festival director Katharina Wagner has announced a full disclosure of the event's ties to Nazi leaders as well as an opening of private archives.

One of 'many mistakes'

Displays of the swastika are illegal in Germany. The hand-sized motif is amateurishly etched on the singer's upper right chest, overlaid with but not obscured by a newer, colorful tattoo. Both are clearly visible in a video filmed six years ago showing the singer at the drums, shirtless and with a shaved head. A still photo from the video appears in the ZDF feature. The body ornament, said Evgeny Nikitin, had been done in his youth at a time when he "preferred spending time on the street more than anywhere else" and had made "many mistakes."

Evgeny Nikitin on stage

Nikitin's departure means the singer will miss out on a career milestone

Teenage rebellion?

Evgeny Nikitin was born in 1973 in Murmansk, a city in the Arctic Circle, where in winter the average temperature is minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus four degrees Fahrenheit), and the sun never rises. Nikitin told DW about suffering from severe depression during the polar nights and discovering rock music and "the street" as antidotes. That was during the 1990s - a desperate and confusing time after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Many young people fled that reality to foreign countries - or took to underground scenes. In Russia, where wartime struggles against fascism serve as a unifying national myth, Nazi symbols were and remain taboo. For that very reason, many young people saw them as an effective tool with which to provoke parents and public opinion.

Nikitin's father, a conductor, managed to redirect his son's energies by getting him admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Nikitin repeatedly wanted to quit his studies until conductor Valery Gergiev discovered his talent and engaged him at the Mariinski Theater. Nikitin is now nearly forty, a successful operatic singer and father of two boys. 

Quick exit

The morning after the ZDF report showing Nikitin's tattoo was broadcast, the singer spoke with Bayreuth Festival co-directors Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner. Immediately afterward, he cancelled his contract and left the city.

Dark chapters in Bayreuth's history will be in focus at the 2012 event running from July 25 to August 28 - not only due to the episode involving this year's intended Dutchman. In Bayreuth's City Hall and on the festival grounds, there will be an exhibition titled "Verstummte Stimmen" (Silenced Voices) that addresses anti-Semitic policies used in casting at Bayreuth even before the Nazi dictatorship came to power.

Author: Anastassia Boutsko / rf
Editor: Greg Wiser

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