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Bayreuth and its Swastikas - Dutchman Overboard

updated, 7.26.12

Today the Bayreuth Festival opens its gates with The Flying Dutchman, broadcast live on BR Klassik. The Dutchman will be sung by the German-based South Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn. It might well be best to hear the broadcast of this performance, rather than see it in the theater, since Mr. Youn (vocally fine, dramatically nothing to write home about) was cast last minute, and can’t possibly have mastered all the finer points of the production that had planned and rehearsed with Evgeny Nikitin for months and weeks.

Evgeny Nikitin, of course, has been asked by the Festival’s direction to voluntarily withdraw from the production after the Wagner sisters became aware that others had become aware that Nikitin once sported fascist-looking tattoos on his chest—grainy old footage of which had been shown on the German state television program “aspekte”.

It’s just a short 4-minute introductory mini-feature, presenting Nikitin as a new kind of punk-Dutchman, the first Russian to take on a leading role at Bayreuth in the Festival’s history. It’s an account of how much this meant to Nikitin, how far he has come in becoming a tame and responsible 4138-year old, and how unusual his background as a heavy-metal drummer is for a Wagnerian singer. And then, a good minute into the report, there is a 14 second clip that shows the young Nikitin working his drum kit, with what seems to be an obscured swastika tattooed on the upper right part of his chest. Fourteen seconds that may have seriously dented his career, and certainly destroyed his dreams of singing in Bayreuth, because in their clumsy attempt to pre-empt a scandal that might reflect badly on them, the Festival asked him to recuse himself. Because goodness knows, Bayreuth mustn’t be associated in any way with swastikas. It didn’t help that in the following segment—talking about his tattoos generally, not specifically about those that allow Third Reich associations—he called his youthful excesses “good, crazy things”.

On the surface, it’s an understandable reaction of the Festival administration, and one is glad that there's a (publically paraded) sensitivity in Bayreuth about matters Third Reich. At last. Symbolism has consequences. But if Bayreuth had a clean conscience itself, they might have been able to argue common sense for keeping Nikitin on: “No longer extant tattoo”, “Follies of Youth”, “Different cultural sensibility in 1990s Russia”. If their decision is understandable, it’s still unfortunate in every way and it is troublingly hypocritical.

Never mind the irony that Evgeny Nikitin would be the first baritone with a swastika tattoo who is not allowed to sing in Bayreuth. But all the opera houses that have worked with Nikitin knew about his tattoos, and presumably even about how they looked before Nikitin had them covered and altered to the point where they have long stopped being specifically offensive. Nikitin, no one suggests otherwise, is well above harboring any right-wing or fascist tendencies. The level-headed Munich State Opera Intendant Nikolaus Bachler, who has worked with Nikitin in Wagner, suggested that the half-sisters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier are pointing the finger at someone else, “because they have a problem with their own history. Nikitin is not only sorry about the incident, but has also shown remorse; the kind of remorse that I have never heard come from the Wagner family in the last 50 years.” (Nordbayerischer Kurier) “How hypocritical that the Wagner-family, of all, sets about punishing the foolishness of a sixteen year old who has long since tried to make that undone.”

Christian Thielemann, de-facto music director in Bayreuth, wasn’t going to bite the Wagner hand that feeds him (meagerly), but his defense of their decision seems unenthused (“A swastika is a no-go, not just in Bayreuth”), and his purported criticism of Nikitin tempered. He suggests that Nikitin should not have answered the question about whether he sported a swastika tattoo with “No”, but with “there was one, once, but it’s since been covered up”… after which he went on to attack Nikitin’s management for not handling the case professionally and letting their client go right to the slaughter. (BZ)

In a statement issued via the Mariinsky Theater’s website, Nikitin (or a spokesperson doing it for him) suggests, not entirely believably, that his body featured and features ‘Scandinavian runes from the time of his heavy metal days, during which he was fascinated by the Norse epics’ and that the would-be swastika wasn’t a swastika at all. (Though it would fit right in with the gratuitously–purposefully provocative, Nordic/Mythological affectations or a rebellious teen who found refuge in the heavy-metal subculture while studying to be an opera singer on the side.)

Apart from the political hoopla, Nikitin’s departure is an immense dramatic and vocal loss to the production. His superb Herald (Munich, 2009) and a very fine Telramund (Munich, 2011), a much younger Fasolt (Met, 2004), or Napoleon (Mariinsky @ Kennedy Center, 2010) all suggested great things.  Understandably, the director of this year’s Bayreuth Dutchman, the braggadocio youngster Jan Philipp Gloger, is miffed. To lose his principal actor after weeks and weeks of intensive work a few days before the premiere is a blow to his and his team’s work, just in time for the premiere that means much also to his career. The damage to the production, he had let it made known in a terse statement, is immense and unfixable.

As he had told Klaus Kalchschmid in an interview for the Almanach of the Society of Friends of Bayreuth, his work heavily depends on the singer material he works with: “[Meeting singers well before rehearsals start] is a luxury we afforded ourselves. Very early on I met with Mr. Nikitin, Mme. Pieczonka [Senta],  and Mr. König [Erik]. It’s exceptionally important to work off real people, whether they are singers or actors. Costume designer Karin Jud added: “We can’t possibly separate the way we imagine a character from the individual that is going to embody it. That’s why one of us has to meet them beforehand. You have to know them to at least some degree.” And Dramaturg Sophie Becker piped up: “We don’t do concept-costumes that try to forcefully tell a story without regard to who is stuck wearing it.”

Well, now he and the audience will have to deal with precisely that, just because their baritone of choice was once an idiotic Russian teen, and because the Bayreuth administration lacks confidence, assurance, and grace—a tradition even more deeply rooted in the Festival than swastikas.


Apparently the largest Germany tabloid, BILD, had threatened to make the tattoo story public and a big, juicy front-page issue on the day of the festival opening (when all the politicians, including chancellor and almost the entire Bavarian cabinet, are coming), which put additional pressure on the Festival Administration to 'solve' the issue. That heightens their conflict, but doesn't change anything.

Rumors that the tattoo story was just an excuse (!?) to get rid of Nikitin for other reasons -- related or not to the fact that no rehearsal audio or pictures of Nikitin were released -- are flying about, but as of yet I've not found them credible.

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