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Singer fired by opera festival over swastika tattoo he no longer has

Evgeny Nikitin with the tattoo in question (left), and in a more recent photo


The worst outcome of tattoo regret is usually a painful laser treatment to have the thing removed. Russian opera star Evgeny Nikitin suffered a more stinging punishment last week, when the Bayreuth Wagner Festival cancelled his house debut in The Flying Dutchman, after a German TV report found that the bass-baritone's many tattoos may have included a swastika.

Overnight, people who had never heard Nikitin sing knew all about the damning ink on his chest, or thought they did. It turns out that the story and its implications are more complicated, both for Nikitin and for Bayreuth, where the default attitude toward the Nazi past has traditionally been deliberate amnesia.

Nikitin is a colourful character in every sense. He played drums in a metal band before taking up classical music, and claims he went to opera school in St. Petersburg mainly to avoid military service. He was about to drop out when the eminent conductor Valery Gergiev spotted his talent and launched what became a big international career. Nikitin has sung Wagnerian roles all over the world (including the Dutchman with the Canadian Opera Company in 2010), and was about to become the first Russian to take a title role at the shrine Wagner himself founded in 1876.

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"I'm incredibly nervous," he told Deutsche Welle two weeks before the show opened on Wednesday, "because in Bayreuth, no one is going to have any mercy on me." Little did he know.

The subsequent TV report included old footage of a bare-chested Nikitin pounding his drumkit. On the right side of his chest, you can see what looks like the outline of a swastika, with an unrelated design spread over it.

That was enough for Bayreuth's step-sisters-in-charge, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier (great-granddaughters of the composer), to summon Nikitin for a half-hour discussion of "the connotations of these symbols, especially in connection with German history," as they said in their announcement of the singer's departure. He called his tattoo "a big mistake" that he thoroughly regretted.

End of story, it seemed. But recent photos of Nikitin's right pec show something else: a heraldic crest, with an eight-sided star around it. Nothing like a swastika is visible. Furthermore, on Wednesday, a more defiant Nikitin told an interviewer that the Bayreuth fracas was a misunderstanding, that he never did have a swastika on his skin, and that the old film footage merely showed a tattoo in progress. His "big mistake," he said, was to have any tattoos at all.

"I find National Socialism in any form deeply abhorrent," he said. "I also abhor the more recent kind of Russian fascism. I'm an artist, an opera singer, not a neo-Nazi."

Nikitin has certainly done something foolish, either by getting a swastika tattoo, or by sending confusing signals about whether he did or not. If he didn't, why did he meekly give up a prestigious debut? Either way, there's no swastika on his skin now. Bayreuth let him go because of the idea that there may have been one there in the past.

This panicky reaction was also foolish. Nikitin's humiliated departure, four days before opening night, drew much more bad publicity than if the festival had just said that whatever idiotic swagger the guy put on during his rock 'n' roll youth, there's no Nazi insignia on his body, and none to be seen on the festival stage.

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But I get why the sisters freaked out, because at Bayreuth, the most haunting swastikas are always the ones in the past, the ones you can no longer see. They include the Nazi banners proudly displayed at the Festspielhaus every time Hitler arrived for another visit to his favourite opera house. Hitler adored Wagner's works, saw himself in at least one of them (Rienzi), and was pals with the sisters' grandmother Winifred years before he became master of the Reich.

At Bayreuth, it has often been possible to imagine that that period never happened. When the festival resumed in 1951, after a seven-year hiatus, it did not acknowledge that one of the conductors that year, Herbert von Karajan, joined the Austrian Nazi party in 1933, five years before Austria's annexation. The "new Bayreuth style" of the stagings was sparse and abstract, linked to no historical period. The choice was in tune with trends in other arts, but also suited the official resolve never to look back.

When I visited the little Wagner museum there some years ago, the only souvenirs of the Nazi period were a few photos of war damage to buildings, and of a grinning American G.I. slouched "at the piano at which Franz Liszt [Wagner's father-in-law] used to improvise." No Fuhrer and no swastikas. A temporary outdoor exhibition on the festival grounds, new this year, pays tribute to Jewish musicians victimized by the Nazis. But on the Bayreuth website, the chronology of the festival's history stops with Wagner's death in 1883.

I find it bizarre to imagine the sisters, whose father Wolfgang Wagner used to greet Hitler as "Uncle Wolf," delivering a half-hour lecture on the meaning of the swastika to Nikitin, whose grandfathers both died fighting Hitler's troops. Could Wagner's heirs bring themselves to talk about the malign ghosts of festivals past? Nikitin's sin was to give those ghosts a chance to stir from their sealed closets.

Of course, Wagner's works are still toxic to some people, because of Hitler's patronage, and the composer's own anti-Semitism. An attempt to perform his music in Israel last month failed to surmount a long-standing ban, and a Deutsche Oper production of Rienzi in April was delayed when someone noticed that the opening coincided with Hitler's birthday. All that is pertinent backdrop to the Nikitin affair.

But the singer's ejection from Bayreuth wasn't about the festival's "opposition to any form of National Socialist ideas," as the sisters claimed. It was a botched attempt at image management that may damage his career for years to come.

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