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What's behind the Nikitin affair?

July 23, 2012

A swastika tattooed on Russian singer Evgeny Nikitin's chest resulted in the sudden cancellation of his contract with the Bayreuth Festival. Observations by Rick Fulker, a long-time observer of the festival.

Evgeny Nikitin on stage
Image: Miinsky Theater

The Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth has always been a hyperemotional place. Is it because of the hours of loud singing? The scarcity of tickets? The ambience of exclusivity, myth and mystery? Or is it because of the provocative composer himself? His anti-Semitic stance? Or the ultranationalistic, eventually National Socialist views of the Bayreuth circle after his death in 1873?

Whoever, like me, has observed the festival for years knows that every nuance onstage and most importantly behind the scenes is rigorously noted and commented on, sometimes in a slightly hysterical tone, sometimes more than slightly hysterical. The Nikitin affair is more than a trifle, however. A soloist on opening day with a swastika on his chest? Had he performed, the damage to the festival would have been immense.

Beethovenfest 2009 Paavo Järvi im Interview mit Rick Fulker DW Programmdirektion Musik in Bonn am 10. 09.2009. Foto DW/Per Henriksen
Rick Fulker is head of DW's Music DepartmentImage: DW

Tattoos no secret

Certainly the festival management doesn't strip-search potential soloists at auditions. But were some warning signs overlooked? Certainly much more of Evgeny Nikitin's torso has become familiar through the mass media than is the case with other singers. In an interview with DW he claimed, "I was asked [by the festival] to have all my tattoos photographed. They are put on display here more than hidden away. My body is my second passport." The artist paraded his body ornamentation with more pride than shame. He was to sing the title role of the Flying Dutchman, a character with demonic overtones. It all seemed fitting and in accord with the Bayreuth Festival's newer open, casual, youth-friendly image.

On more recent photos of Evgeny Nikitin's skin ornamentation, the swastika would seem to have been painted over. Then a video made a few years ago turned up showing the shaved-headed singer bare-chested at the drums, the swastika partly covered but still clearly recognizable. Now Nikitin is calling his tattoos the biggest mistake of his youth. He claims to have far underestimated their significance. But can the 39-year-old singer, who grew up in Murmansk, a city in the Arctic Circle, but now calls the world's major opera stages his home, really have been that naive?

Bayreuth's own scandals

Meanwhile, the Bayreuth Festival is demonstrating a cautious, perhaps slightly too cautious approach to addressing long-ignored issues of festival history during the Nazi era. Pacing and dramaturgy of this process are determined by the festival directors. An exhibition titled "Silent Voices" in the current season explores anti-Semitic casting policies in the pre-Nazi era.

In Nikitin's case, the festival took a clear stance: No Nazi symbols allowed here! But the subject is by no means exhausted. Two years ago festival co-director Katharina Wagner confidently announced a "full disclosure of the festival's Nazi past by a commission of independent historians," but little has been heard on the subject since. The time for that is ripe.

Author: Rick Fulker
Editor: Michael Lawton

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