The Shmooze

Bayreuth Opera Drops Swastika-Tattooed Singer

By Blair Thornburgh

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Cover to the Bayreuth Festival brochure of 1884, the year after Richard Wagner’s death.

It seems that if you want to play Wagner’s Dutchman on stage, a Nazi tattoo just ain’t gonna fly. Russian singer Evgeny Nikitin withdrew from the titular role of the famed German opera on Saturday after a July 20 television broadcast showcasing his hard-rocking past as drummer in a Russian metal band included a clear view of his tattooed torso — including a large swastika spanning the right of his chest.

Nikitin had originally told the German Aspekte TV program that his dermatological decoration was “just part of our underground culture.”

Unfortunately, the swastika is also a part of another culture, one that feels frustratingly intractable for the officials, artists and musicians of Bayreuth. The inked-up indicator of intolerance is the exact opposite kind of “brand identity” needed for operas burdened with the notorious anti-Semitism of its composer, Richard Wagner. Festival officials are understandably more eager to highlight the festival’s legions of fans who will wait years for tickets than its most infamous patron — Adolf Hitler.

After a half-hour meeting (and presumably a quick history lesson) with festival directors, Nikitin voluntarily gave up his role as the singing sea-captain in “The Flying Dutchman.” Official word from the production states that the decision “is in accord with the festival leadership’s absolute rejection of any form of National Socialist thinking” and that despite “immense artistic damage” to the show, the opera’s team is moving quickly to recover, with Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn already set to take over for Nikitin.

In admitting the major mea culpa, Nikitin, who would have been the first Russian to perform a lead role at Bayreuth, shows himself needled by regrets familiar to many a tattoo-ee: “I had them done in my youth. It was a big mistake and I wish I’d never done it.”


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