The St. Petersburg Times
NATASHA RAZINA FOR SPT
Yevgeny Nikitin seen in the Mariinsky’s new staging of ‘Boris Godunov.’
Mariinsky Theater baritone Yevgeny Nikitin loves tattoos. Spiders, dragons and demons cover a fair share of the Russian singer’s muscular body. One of them has just cost the 38-year-old star baritone a long-awaited engagement with Germany’s prestigious Bayreuth festival, where the singer was due to appear in the title role of Richard Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Hollander” (“The Flying Dutchman”) on Wednesday. The tattoo in question was a swastika on the singer’s chest.
Expectations were high for this engagement. Nikitin’s participation in “The Flying Dutchman” would have been the first-ever involvement of a Russian singer with the Bayreuth festival, and Russia’s entrance to a prestigious club with restricted access.
Nikitin will be replaced by the South Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn after the Russian singer was forced to cancel his performance. In an official statement distributed by the festival, Nikitin said he regrets having the tattoo done and stresses it was a “mistake of youth.”
“I was not aware of the extent of the irritation and offence these signs and symbols would cause, particularly in Bayreuth given the context of the festival’s history,” the singer said in the statement. “I had them done in my youth. It was a big mistake and I wish I’d never done it.”
The singer stressed that the symbols carried no political meaning for him and that it had never occured to him that the fact of having them done more than 20 years ago would be seen as Nazi propaganda.
In the meantime, the festival’s management justified Nikitin’s withdrawal by what they described as the festival’s firm rejection of Nazi ideas, regardless of their means of expression.
“The decision about Mr. Nikitin’s withdrawal was made after the festival acquainted the singer with the connotations of these symbols in connection with German history,” reads an official festival statement.
Nikitin is one of the Mariinsky’s most successful opera singers, who has built an impressive international career and has a busy performing schedule at the world’s most respected operatic venues. Wagner operas are key to his repertoire, and he has performed Wagner roles in Germany on a number of occassions. At the Mariinsky, his most recent success was the lead role in Graham Vick’s production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” that premiered in May this year.
In Russia, the degree of public commentary on the abrupt ending of Nikitin’s romance with Bayreuth has been extremely moderate, and essentially limited to regrets that a talented singer is missing an important engagement, and not getting the well-deserved recognition of his artistic achievement. However, behind the scenes, there is fury.
It is hard for those who sympathize with the artist to defend him, as it goes without saying that bearing a tattoo in the shape of a symbol that became associated with fascism — though the swastika significantly predates Hitler and originates in Asia — is not something to be proud of.
“There is a new tattoo that was done later over the swastika, and, more importantly, Yevgeny Nikitin does not have a history of fascist rhetoric or any behavior that can be interpreted as Nazi propaganda,” wrote Anastasia Boutsko, a cultural reviewer with Deutsche Welle media outlet. “Without a doubt, had the singer imagined the potential damage that this old tattoo could do to his career, he would have had it removed with the help of a surgeon.”
The Bayreuth scandal raises a series of important issues: Does the concept of statute of limitations apply to ethical issues, and to what extent can these issues affect an artistic engagement? Is the classical music scene giving stage to a fight without rules when it comes to plum contracts? Or is Bayreuth assuming the tactics of a private club to which entrance can be restricted to anyone, at the management’s sole discretion, and in some cases without an explanation?
The Russian criminal code includes the concept of the statute of limitation, meaning that after a certain length of time, legal proceedings regarding a crime cannot be launched. This concept is applicable even to murders.
The tattoos were done in about 1989 and 1990, according to Nikitin, when he was a member of a youth heavy metal band. A video showing a performance of that band — fronted by a bare chested Nikitin — was obtained by the German media, and its publication stirred up a scandal that resulted in the singer’s last-minute departure from the festival.
Clearly, the statute of limitations does not apply at Bayreuth. Does the method of an exemplary punishment work, then?
If this were the case, one peaceful solution would have been to invite Nikitin to have the tattoo removed, or offer a written apology, considering the sensitivity of the issue.
“The bitter irony is that in ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ the sinful main character is granted the chance for a spiritual transformation, and the Wagner festival has just denied a singer — who struggled with a heroine addiction in his teens that he ended after joining the Mariinsky Theater and building an international career — a tiny fraction of mercy,” Boutsko wrote. “The festival’s blow was below the belt.”
For Vladimir Dudin, a classical music reviewer who contributes to a number of publications, including Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the Bayreuth incident has left a strong aftertaste of a media provocation.
“From whatever perspective you look at it, the scandal gives a sense of dredging up dirt from the past,” Dudin said. “Yes, Nikitin’s body is densely covered with tattoos, but it does not affect his singing in any way. And stripping on stage was not required for this performance. More importantly, his body is his personal business. The festival does not have the right to interfere in such intimate issues.”
Wagner (1813-1883) was Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer. The musician was an open and outspoken anti-Semite, while Winifred Wagner, the composer’s daughter-in-law, was friends with Hitler.
Wagner’s music is still de facto banned in Israel.