Optically he fits the cliché of the wild Russian. But that's not the only reason Evgeny Nikitin was invited to perform at this year's Bayreuth Festival. DW spoke with the singer about his affinity for Wagner's music.
Evgeny Nikitin makes a striking impression right from the start: He looks like he's seven feet tall and is tattooed up to his ears, and could almost pass for a Russian bear with a monumental bass voice. He was born 39 years ago in Murmansk, a city north of the Arctic Circle where the sun never comes up during the winter months. He said he became a singer out of "fear of the army" - his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory exempting him from two years of compulsory military service. His father, a conductor, called on old contacts to get his less-than-industrious son into the conservatory. Nikitin himself preferred "hanging out on the streets" with friends and "found life more interesting than classical music." But that all changed when Valery Gergiev, a so-called tsar of Russian music, discovered Nikitin. At 24, he debuted in the "murderous" part of Ruslan in Michail Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmila" before taking on a lead role in a St. Petersburg Wagner project. Now and again, Nikitin has played in a rock band. On July 25, 2012, he debuts in Bayreuth in the title role of Richard Wagner's opera "The Flying Dutchman."
DW: Wagner plays a central role in your repertoire. Was that your decision or the result of the repertory policy of the opera house you're most closely associated with - the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg?
Evgeny Nikitin: Both. When I came to the theater, Gergiev was in his "Wagner phase." "The Ring," "Parsifal" and "Lohengrin" were staged in St. Petersburg. I only got small roles. I wasn't really into the classical canon back then. But when I began standing around for hours on stage with a spear as some "second knight" or something, I came to appreciate Wagner's incredible music.
Excuse me, but I'm surprised you would say that - you are a conductor and a trained singer.
Well, I was able to separate what I do for a living from what I like personally. I was young and had made too many mistakes. I wanted to stop going to college after eight semesters, for example. The invitation from the Mariinsky, which was unexpected for me, stopped me from that.
How did you get that invitation?
Gergiev came to an exam, listened to me and said, "Learn the 'Ruslan.'" That was in 1997, when I was 24. It was pretty crazy: That's a score in which even an experienced singer can mess up. My debut was in New York during the opening of the Mariinsky's guest appearance at the Metropolitan Opera. That's just the Gergiev method: Jumping right into the deep end to learn how to swim.
You just debuted as Boris in Modest Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" in St. Petersburg. It's a key part of the Russian repertoire. What stands out to you in Wagner and in Mussorgsky?
Mussorgsky is a dramatic composer, whom you cannot sing with a cool head. You perform Boris the way you'd play a Shakespearean hero. For Wagner, it is the opposite: You have to leave aside all theatricality and meticulously follow the original score - that is the only way it works. I could not sing composers such as Donizetti and Bellini with the same approach as I use with Wagner's works.
Italian music is very focused on external effects because you have to show off a good voice. These vocal circus acts are not really my thing - it's just a matter of taste. But I love German music by Praetorius and Schütz up through Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. German music is just about much deeper things.
It's not easy for a Russian vocalist to sing in German…
I have taken ten years to perfect my German pronunciation and to lighten up my dark Slavic pronunciation. I have deliberately copied German singers. The pronunciation, the words have also influenced the voicing. Now hopefully no one hears that there's a Russian singing Wagner.
The role of the Dutchman is nothing new for you. You sang it not only in Russia but also in Leipzig and Baden-Baden, for example - although you strongly criticized the Leipzig production in your interviews. Are they not a fan of Regietheater?
Well, yes, there has to be experimentation - even in opera. But out of ten experiments, maybe two or three will work out. So the risk of falling into a bad production is big. Otherwise, for me, the musical aspects take precedence. I follow the conductor and his approach: He is my captain, and I, the sailor.
How did you get the invitation to Bayreuth?
Katharina Wagner and Christian Thielemann invited me to audition in Munich. That was two summers ago. It completely surprised me when they offered me the part.
How did you feel? You are the first Russian singer to sing a title role at Bayreuth.
I am proud. I think this is a great achievement for me and for the whole Petersburgvocal school. When I get home from Bayreuth, I will not greet just anyone - perhaps every other person. No, joking aside: To be honest, I'm incredibly nervous. Because in Bayreuth, no one is going to have mercy on me. For me it will be a difficult test.
You have barely a square inch on your body that isn't tattooed. The Bayreuth make-up artists will have some work to do…
I've been asked to photograph all of my tattoos. They will probably be put on display rather than covered up.
Actually it fits with the role. But what do all these signs mean?
Various things. They were created at different times for different reasons.
My body is my second passport, so to speak.
What does this mean, for example, the wolf's head on your wrist?
That's the wolf Fendrich. This is from the time when I was a fan of Norwegian black metal.
You are also a drummer in a rock band and sing rock music, right?
Not any more. There's just no time. Plus I have to protect my ears. But earlier it was a welcome alternative to the opera stage for me. As my father would say, "Son, change is the best form of rest."
Interview: Anastassia Boutsko / gsw