Yevgeny Nikitin, the Russian singer who withdrew from the opening of Germany's famed Bayreuth Festival after it was discovered he had a swastika tattoo on his body, has issued a statement explaining his body art.
In a message on the website for St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, where he is a rising star, Nikitin asserted that he does not belong to any political groups, from either the left or right: "National Socialism in all its manifestations is deeply disgusting to me," he said. "My two grandfathers perished in the Great Patriotic War! I declare categorically that my tattoos do not relate to Nazi symbolism."
The bass-baritone maintained that the swastika was actually a symbol connected to Nordic sagas, of which he had been "fascinated at the time."
Nikitin goes on to say that the German television report containing an old video of his rock band showed the tattoo in an unfinished stage. “I repeat, this was an intermediate stage, the tattoo was unfinished. I never wanted to have a swastika on my body and even more so would not pose in front of a camera like this.”
The singer has since covered up the offending image with a different tattoo. But after a newspaper asked the Bayreuth P.R. department about the tattoo, Nikitin was called in for talks with the festival directors on Saturday morning. Later that day he announced that he was leaving the opening production of The Flying Dutchmen.
In an earlier statement released by Bayreuth, Nikitin said that he gotten the tattoos in his youth but did not deny that the image was a swastika. "It was a major mistake in my life, and I wish I had never done it," he said.
Displaying Nazi symbols is a criminal offense in Germany. Bayreuth, which celebrates the music of Richard Wagner, has a particularly difficult history given its troubling historical tie to the Nazi regime. Some of Wagner’s heirs befriended and associated with Adolf Hitler, who was a fan and a regular visitor to the summer festival.
The reaction to Nikitin’s departure was heated on Monday.
Nikolaus Bachler, head of Munich's influential Bavarian State Opera, was among those who came to Nikitin's defense. He blasted Bayreuth's leadership – singling out co-chiefs Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier – for their handling of the matter. "The affair is more a problem for Bayreuth and the Wagner family than for the singer," he told Agence France-Presse in a statement on Monday.
Some contended that Nikitin's tattoos were common knowledge around the world’s major opera houses and yet he was never publicly reprimanded. "Of course the tattoos are generally covered up for aesthetic reasons, but in some productions he has openly flaunted them," said the opera blog Intermezzo. "Thousands of people have seen them. No one has said anything."
But Christian Thielemann, the German maestro conducting Bayreuth's The Flying Dutchman, reinforced the criticism against Nikitin in an interview with Berlin media. "A swastika is a no-go, not only in Bayreuth. It wouldn't be acceptable in Australia, either," said Thielemann, who, along with festival co-chief Katharina Wagner, had initially invited Nikitin to audition for the part.