Evgeny Nikitin and Bayreuth

Yevgeny and his tats.(Photo: Agence-France-Presse)
Yevgeny and his tats.(Photo: Agence-France-Presse)

Opera companies love controversy. One exception would be Germany’s Bayreuth Festival, founded by Richard Wagner in 1876 to showcase his own works, exclusively. Tickets to the festival often involve a five year waiting list to this day. Many are the faithful who dream of coming to Bayreuth to hear “The Master’s” works in his own theater.

Russian bass Evgeny Nikitin, 38, has withdrawn from this year’s festival when a YouTube video revealed a swastika- like tattoo on his chest. This is not the horrid image we are used to seeing. It’s described as an eight point star with a sword crossed over it. Whatever.

We’ve learn that Nikitin played in a heavy metal band during his druggie youth. The story ‘s been floated that Valery Gergiev kicked his bottom into rehab and put him in the Mariisnky Opera School.  Giving up metal for Wagner and Mozart, the tattoo still went with him, whether as Don Giovanni or The Flying Dutchman.

Not at Bayreuth. Co-directors Eva Wagner-Pasquier and her sister Katharina Wagner declared that Bayreuth will not tolerate any symbols of Nazism and Evgeny was out. He’s due at the Met in a few weeks for a pricey opening night. Met General Manager Peter Gelb has thus far voiced support for his young bass.

Meanwhile, being bounced out of Bayreuth over a perceived swastika is a bit rich. Haus Wahnfried and the Festival Theater were the summer Reichstag of Hitler and his goons. Winifred Wagner, the British born widow of the composer’s only son, heads the list of Hitler’s intimate circle in any discussion of those horrible times. Swastikas? The town and the theatre were covered with them.

Nikitin says he got the tattoo when he was an immature jerk. He meant no harm, he says,  and didn’t realize it would cause such trouble today. (C’mon.) It has since been suggested he was tattooed in 2006. No one blames him for being an idiot as a kid. Let him without sin cast the first stone, etc. He’s become a fine artist, if a doofus, as a grown man. The Wagners’ wish to rehabilitate the festival and their family’s Nazi past has a long way to go.