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Would you sing with a man in a swastika tattoo?

Almost twenty-four hours after Yevgeny Nikitin was hustled out of Bayreuth because his large swastika tattoo had caught media attention, the episode leaves more questions than answers.

“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,” Nikitin was quoted as saying by the DPA news agency.

By which he meant, presumably, that Bayreuth was always a Nazi hotbed. That kind of statement is not tolerated by the Wagners and the Russian bass-baritone was sent on his way.

Nikitin, 38, has sung on many of the world’s great stages and is popular with colleagues of all nations. He is, they say, a reformed character who has put his wild youth behind him. From the evidence of his tattoo, it would appear that he has tried several times to cover up the huge swastika with other images. But the emblem is too large and the scar tissue makes it impossible (we are told) to remove the swastika completely.

He branded for life. Not just branded but seared with the mark of Cain: the swastika represents mass murder.

So what now for Nikitin? Certainly his career will be blighted. It’s unlikely he can appear at the Met without protests, not for a while at any rate. I expect there will still be work for him in St Petersburg.

What he needs to do from now on is keep his shirt on – and that, in opera nowadays, is very hard to do.

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  1. Dutchguy says:

    Well, i’m afraid this whole thing confirms a bit the feelings i had after reading this in an interview with Nikitin:

    I’ve heard you are a fan of medieval history and are a member of a club that re-enacts historic battles.

    Yes, I used to be. Four years ago I was in the Frankland club – a historic re-enactment club in France. We learned how to use a sword, shield, pole-axe and bludgeon – and all other kinds of historical weaponry. And we would go and make battle, we went “to war” in Belgium with another club: single combat and headed for a showdown. These are not just re-enactments, they’re real fights. People get injured. It’s all quite serious: we had real iron outfits, really quite heavy, and in thirty degrees you have to wear this thick leather quilted jacket, chain mail on top of that, then a cape on top of that and a helmet weighing seven kilograms. You wear that the entire day and you understand that warriors were very strong men of great endurance. Your back begins to cause you agony, and the most interesting thing is that when you take all of this stuff off after wearing it an entire day you don’t have the feeling of lightness you’d expect – you have the feeling you’re still wearing it and that you’re still carrying it all the next day. It all requires good physical preparation and it hardens your character. When I was last in France I was unable to take part in a battle. Training generally takes place in the summer.

    In some ways you’re like a Viking – strong and heroic.

    Probably because I’m a redhead. I got into the knight thing by chance – I met some guys and decided to “sniff out” what this was all about. And I liked it – it has a certain something. There was basically almost no chance of staying alive in such a skirmish. You look through your visor – only forwards, you can only see your enemy. Someone coming from the side could kill you. Back then warriors did not die natural deaths, that much is evident. If any warrior lived to have grey hair then that meant he had avoided battle and that meant shame.

  2. Do you really think there would be protests at the Met? Given that he’s tried to cover it and is said to be well-liked, I am not sure. It’s an interesting question.

  3. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Today in Paris, President Francois Hollande is speaking at an event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Rafle du Velodrome d’Hiver, probably the worst moment of the shameful French behavior during the War of 1939-45. Finally, the French (at least the government) seem determined to remember their sad role which President Jacques Chirac first acknowledged publicly in 1995. I think Mr. Nikitin has chosen to forget the horrors of Nazi Germany. I find the “cover-up” of the tatoo less-than-convincing. It’s encouraging to see the Wagner family and others take a stand at Bayreuth. I recommend two books on this period about the arts during the war: “And the show went on…” (cultural life in Paris during the occupation) by Alan Riding and “21 rue La Boetie” by Anne Sinclair (yes, the now-separated wife of DSK) which concerns her grandfather, a renowned art dealer, persecuted by the Nazis and Vichy (available only in French at the moment). Artists almost always act responsibly, but not every time….

  4. Michael Varcoe-Cocks says:

    Anyone interested in a balanced assessment of this news about Nikitin might look at the German TV item from which Das Bild seems to have grabbed their tabloid opportunity.

  5. Graf Nugent says:

    I heard the news at 3pm yesterday on Bayerischer Rundfunk and immediately went online to get some more information. The ‘grab’ shot was there in the Bild-Zeitung article about Nikitin’s tattoos, but the swastika had been airbrushed out. The article pre-dated the scandal by some time. Later on, I tried in vain to find the picture again. It had been replaced partout by the one posted here, the swastika clearly visible.

    I’m not sure I understand why this blew up when it did. Nikitin’s decorations are well-known in the business and there had been plenty of opportunity for anyone – ANYONE – to point out the offending tattoo way ahead of time, such has been the marketing around his appearance in Bayreuth. It’s all very curious.

  6. Perhaps someone should ask this fellow point blank what he thinks of Nazism and the Neo-Nazism.

    Let his words speak for themselves. If he is honest, has an honest opinion, and is not a coward, he will say outright whether he condones or condemns Nazism and such bastardry. If he beats around the bush and avoids the topic, that will speak for itself. Personally, if I was in a discussion or interview with him, I can almost guarantee to find a way to elicit a comment that was unambiguous as to where he stands. It CAN be done, if it has not already been done.

  7. Michael Varcoe-Cocks says:

    There is a rather nasty irony in the way presumably musically-intelligent contributors to this and other blogs are launching vicious and sometimes illinformed attacks at Mr Nikitin. I leave tomorrow for a short trip to the Munich and Bayreuth festivals. I am able eat and drink in the Munich beerhalls despite their association with the rise of Adolf Hitler and I will be entranced by the music of Wagner despite not having found very much in my extensive reading about him and his family to like and a great deal that is extremely offensive.

    Are we really to excoriate Mr Nikitin for his youthful undiscretions and effectively excommunicate him from the world’s opera houses (unfortunately I think Mr Lebrecht is right about problems at the Met – they will fear a single person demonstrating during a performance and will take the easy way out), yet admire and accept Wagner for his sublime music dramas?

    What next? A Gestapo-type grilling for operasingers about their political beliefs before any contracts are signed? A naked strip-search to check for any politically incorrect tattoos?

    In my 40-odd years of opera-going I have heard some very unpleasant things about quite a number of great singers and others involved in the opera world which would stop me inviting them to dinner but not stop me from going to their performances. Is a hysterical and unbalanced intervention by a nasty tabloid to prevent me from hearing Mr Nikitin on the world’s opera stages ever again?

    • Dismissing Nikitin’s actions as mere “youthful undiscretions”, or that his actions were only “stupid”, are way off. No, a teen driving his car across someone’s lawn is “stupid.” Mooning one’s math teacher is a youthful indiscretion. Tattooing one’s self with a Nazi symbol is vile, pretty much at any age.

      Mr. Varcoe-Cock’s calling inquiries of such as “gestapo-type,” is well, not that far behind.

      • Wanderer says:

        You are missing all the context of living as a teenager in the collapsing Soviet Union. That’s not an excuse, but it matters.

  8. Andrew Powell says:

    Steve is right. What we are missing here — and it had better come soon — is a clear statement from this Amfortas-going-on-Klingsor of his views on Nazism. Otherwise the Met should take Bayreuth’s lead.

    • Well, as we are now aware, Nikitin has issued a clear denunciation, per Norman’s more recent post here:

      For my part, given my previous comments on this post, I acknowledge Nikitin’s denunciation, and would take him at his word. I also acknowledge, per my comments in Norman’s newer post, that I had underdone my homework on Nikitin’s swastika tattoo, which has indeed been covered up.

      Having said that, the adverse publicity pertained to the tattoo upon which I and others commented, and there was a point in the need for Nikitin to unequivocally state his views, which he has now done.

  9. Andrew Powell says:

    Associated Press (AP) provides a more complete quote than the one cited above:

    “It was a major mistake in my life, and I wish I had never done it,” he said. “I was not aware of the extent of the confusion and hurt that these symbols would cause, particularly in Bayreuth and in the context of the festival’s history.”

    AP’s story points out that Nikitin got the tattoos in his youth and that displaying Nazi symbols is a criminal offense in Germany.

    • I read that. Or a news item saying the same thing. Still not the same as quoting him actually saying what he thinks, in clear terms of Nazism and similar.

    • I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but how could an adult man who has performed all over the world for at least a decade not be aware of the “confusion and hurt” that a swastika would cause?

      I understand his background and so tend toward understanding, but that statement creates more question than it answers.

      I seems that Mr. Nikitin is scheduled for the 2013 Met Parsifal with Voigt and Graham. I wonder if he will continue to be engaged.

  10. “….his *large* swastika tattoo had caught media attention” This is surely a misleading description.
    The media must have very alert eyes as the swastika is barely discernable, as he’s done his utmost to conceal the symbol with yet more tattoos.
    Context has been helpfully provided by the interview quoted by ‘dutchguy’ (battle re-enactments to harden character) and ‘Wanderer’ on the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    • The swastika is easy to spot. I saw it at a glance. I read the interview re battle re-enactments. I don’t recall it making any mention regarding Nazism. As for the collapse of the Soviet Union, this gives some context, but does not entirely explain the behaviour.

      There were all sorts of sociocultural sequelae relating to the Soviet Union collapse. I recall some German friends sending me a newspaper clipping about the rise of alcoholism, and I have personally met someone who escaped the clutches of post-Soviet mafia that arose from ex-Soviet troops who turned to crime as a lucrative way to make a living (this particular fellow was so fearful of his life that he took other risks which were a far lesser evil than the nasty death he feared for turning his back on the drug trafficking task which had been assigned to him).

      Neo-boofheadism has also arisen in Germany and other places. It’s all boofheadism, and there is nothing like a man saying in no uncertain terms what he thinks of it. I have yet to see a quote of this fellow doing so. Now I may not agree with someone who makes it clear for example that he or she is in favour of boofheadisms, but I respect the fact that they have the courage to say what they believe. In my personal experience, having dealt with a great many outright thugs, people who openly say what they think are actually easier to deal with than people who don’t. Some of the most dangerous people I ever met played the social etiquette game while wreaking havoc with their troublemaking behaviours: I personally considered them cowards, and made a point of flushing out what they were really up to.

  11. John Daszak says:

    This is a difficult one!! I heard him singing in Lohengrin in Munich whilst I was there and nobody mentioned his tattoo then….If he is serious that it was a youthful indiscretion, then he would now do all that he can to remove it or cover it up..I hope he does. I have sung alongside people who clearly have extreme racial and political views. Whilst not condoning it, this is one of the fantastic things about art. It bridges those gaps in culture and race. It would be interesting to hear what some Jewish singers/conductors think about this! Look at what Barenboim is doing with the Divan orchestra…I fear that however bad the publicity is for Nikitin, it will in the end be publicity. His name will be thrown around a lot now and when the storm has calmed he will be at the forefront when casting the badboy roles that he does anyway!!

    • Russian says:

      Maybe he still has nationalistic views, I do not know, but it is possible in modern Russia. We have one sportsman who has “Gott mit uns” tatoo. I think it is good that they rejected Nikitin. Swastika is a Nazi symbol, everyone knows it. Nationalism is a big problem in modern Russia, because after the crash of communism we got not real democracy, but oligarchic capitalism. Our politicians like to support Russian Orthodox Church and “patriotic” movements. After the crash of comunism the most archaic forces came to power: Church, cossaks, ethnical criminals. In this atmosphere the growth of nationalism was very big.

      • Привет русским. Каким образом это предложение перевести обратно на английский, пожалуйста?

        Yes, nationalism is a recurrent issue worldwide, and especially in countries, and times in countries, when the socioeconomic going gets tough.

        Of course, the context of where and how this fellow grew up is significant, which is doubtless the point Wanderer and Geoff are making. The peer groups he was subject to, the belief systems he developed, affiliations and behaviours he had to adopt to survive and develop a viable life. All of these and more, are not trivia for the pontificating likes of me to dismiss lightly.

        Nevertheless, as one develops a social conscience, one must then make decisions as to how best to utilise this. As one saying goes, “it’s the putting right that counts”. Still, I acknowledge that each person has to eke out their existence in the context they find themselves, and it’s easier for the likes of me to comment on it than be in that situation and doing the very things we pontificate upon.

        I recall a comment from a mainstream political leader in a democratic country where the government of the day had to form a coalition with a minority party that had never before been in government. This politician noted that at last, the minority party would get to see how easy it is (not) to enact the ideological policies they’d been espousing over the years.

        From my readings over the years, and as others likely know better than me, true democracy has never existed anywhere, including Greece. My understanding is that democracy was limited to the aristocratic classes, not the masses. I forget where I read that. I do remember reading John Ferguson’s “Utopias of the Classical World” in 1985, and it’s probably from there.

        I have been involved in political campaigns here and there, for a couple of different political parties. Not the street march or protest versions, but the “we’re running a candidate” versions. In one campaign that I was involved in, our candidate (a minority party that has a not insignificant political impact at times) “knocked out” (metaphorically speaking) the mainstream candidate who we would have preferred over the candidate who won. We were unlikely to win (we could have, under certain circumstances), but our percentage was the best nationwide for a third party at the time and our candidate head-hunted by a major political party, eventually playing a role in policy formulation at a national level. So we can make a difference, even if it’s behind the scenes. Indeed oftentimes the real work is behind the scenes.

        I pursue no ideology though. I think pretty much the only thing that saves individuals, organisations, and societies, is checks and balances. And that means giving voice to the people we disagree with, and finding ways to move forward. Few people truly want the destruction of others: they just want somehow to make their own lives better, and the trick is to get them to a point where they (and the others they seek to destroy) see that for the most part, betterment does not necessitate destruction of others.

        Even where force becomes necessary, the trick is to somehow introduce the concept of “reasonable force”. The essence of this is the use of sufficient force only, to disable a threat: beyond the use of such reasonable force, we become not the defendants, but the assailants.

        Of course, in the heat of the moment, this can be easier said than done. However, everyone knows the concept of not kicking a man when he’s down. There is no such thing as a warrior who would dream of doing that. Such behaviour is thug behaviour, no matter who does it. A true warrior fights only when necessary, and only to the extent necessary, and will seek peace as the preferred outcome (part of which often entails allowing the vanquished to save face). We should never be surprised that the vanquished, when brutalised, become bitter and twisted and seek revenge. This is my current view anyway: I’ve held it for many years, so it’s a view that I seem to have settled on.

        • My rough rendering of the sentence posted by Steve: “Hello, Russians. Could you tell me how to translate this sentence to English, please?”
          Steve, the word “please” is unidiomatical in the sentences starting with “how to” in Russian. Or you should say: “Tell me please, how to”… And in Russian it’s more idiomatical to put “please” after the verb: “Traslate please this sentence” (Переведите пожалуйста это предложение).

          Take care!

          • Thanks Russian. Your reply is much appreciated. I used Gargoyle’s auto-translate (okay, Google: but I like my wordplay better because I can do more with it).

            I realised that given your native understanding of the Russian language, a unique opportuntiy presented itself. That is, create an English sentence, get the Gargoyle translation, and post that to see how a native speaker (here I don’t refer to your nationality, which may or may not be Russian, but your native understanding of the language) translates that back to English.

            The original sentence was something like: “Hello Russian. Can you tell me how this sentence tranlsates, please?” This may not be verbatim. I didn’t write it down, for some reason thinking I could probably reconstruct how I got there.

            What I posted here was the Gargoyle translation into Russian. When I back-translated into English again using Gargoyle, I got this: “Hello Russian. How does the proposal to transfer back to English, please?”, which I got again by copying and pasting my above text.

            That bit reconstructs the same. I do see an error in my method. I should have written my original English sentence down. The reason is that I struggle to reconstruct it, with none of my efforts reliably giving the Russian text that I pasted above (I did use the words ‘sentence’, and ‘translate’, and it was a simple sentence). That’s interesting in itself of course.

            Anyway, thanks again. While you’re here, is it possible to tell me what the Russian is saying at the end of this video clip?


            I had thought it was Dmitri Hvorostovsky, but having seen some other clips of the same performance, I’m guessing it wasn’t him. It sounded like coming from a speaker rather than someone in the audience, hence my original assumption that it was Dmitri.

            Spasibo (hope that’s right, I’d hate to commit the error that anthropologist Nigel Barley made per his book “The Innocent Anthropologist”, although it did cause hilarity among the natives, and in many university departments for years thereafter)

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