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Yevgeny Nikitin is innocent, OK?

The Metropolitan  Opera fixed up an awkward interview for the New York Times with the Russian bass-baritone Yevgeny Nikitin, who was hounded out of Bayreuth over an alleged swastika tattoo. Nikitin, who speaks excellent English, insisted on speaking Russian. The Times was obliged to rely on a translator supplied by the Met, not the best practice.

In the conversation, the singer, who is due to appear in the Met’s Parsifal next February, insisted he had designed the tattoo himself and it was not intended to be a swastika; it just came out that way. The matter was distorted by the German media and by the terror of Bayreuth’s rulers to be associated with anything resembling a Nazi emblem – not that this has ever bothered them before (see below).

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager said that he had no problem bringing Nikitin to the Met. ‘If he was a Nazi and promoting Nazism, of course we’d have a problem,’ said Gelb. ‘From what I understand, and I spoke to him, he’s guilty of being naïve and ignorant. That doesn’t disqualify you from singing on the stage of the Met.’

Gelb, for once, is both courageous and right.

We have been talking to friends of Nikitin and they tell a very different back story. Raised in the Arctic north, Nikitin suffered severe depressions while growing up. He ran with a wild crowd, some of whom had odious political views. He plays drums in a hard rock band and was a fan of KISS, the last two letters of which he had tattooed on his body. Some have mistaken these as the SS sign.

By the time he went to the conservatory in St Petersburg, he was a heroin addict. Valery Gergiev plucked him physically from the gutter and took him into the Mariinsky Theatre, ordering him to get clean. Nikitin came off drugs by sheer willpower, without alternative substances or rehab. The power of music, he told friends, is what got him through. He credits Gergiev with saving his life and giving him an international career. At 38, he is a powerful singer, popular with many colleagues.

Bayreuth’s action in forcing him to leave, knowing that he was a vulnerable personality with a history of depression, becomes incomprehensible in the circumstances. If Nikitin was less resilient and had fewer friends, Bayreuth might have blood once again on his hands.

We promised you another story of swatikas at Bayreuth: here it is. Two years ago, in the course of a Lebrecht Interview, the French director Patrice Chereau talked openly about the unregenerate Nazis that he met at Bayreuth while directing the 1976 centenary Ring. In his cast was a bass-baritone who wore a swastika ring which he liked to get other people to kiss. The same swimmer had a swastika painted at the bottom of his swimming pool (I’m not sure if this story got into the final cut). Nazi emblems were common at Bayreuth 35 years ago. The Wagners have never come clean on their past. Their over-reaction to the Nikitin incident is questionable, to say the least.

You can download the Chereau interview here.



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  1. Gurnemanz says:

    Regardless of Nikitin’s personal background Bayreuth did overreact since everyone is allowed a folly of youth here and there and as long as Nikitin didn’t kill anyone and since he tried to get rid of the unsavoury tattoo. Speaking of KISS and it’s logo resembling the SS one, it’s ironic that the band’s leader Gene Simmons is Jewish and born in Israel to boot.

    As for Chereau’s story, I’m sorry but I find it highly implausible. If it’s true that Bayreuth was full of nazis as late as 1976 why did he get on with his work there not only that year but many years afterwards? Why did he not denounce the singer in question back then? Why didn’t he take it up with Wolfgang Wagner? The latter kicked his own mother out of Bayreuth the previous year because of her embarassing interview with Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, you think he’d have spared a second thought for some bass-baritone non-entity? So many elements in Chereau’s story just do not add up.

    • Chereau gave me the name of the singer. I have corroborated the story with others. It is verifiably true.

      • Gurnemanz says:

        Fair enough, Mr. Lebrecht, I’ll test my analitical skills by trying to deduce who it is. :-)

        But that still leaves the questions of why Chereau went on with the production regardless and why he waited until now to spill the beans unanswered. Frankly, the incident speaks more of Chereau then of Bayreuth and the singer in question.

      • Yes Addison says:

        I’ve heard those stories about the German singer in question. I thought the part about his swimming pool, at least, was common knowledge; it often comes up when he and/or Nazism-tainted musicians are mentioned. Should we not name him here? Besides singing in the early run of that centenary RING, he was a Karajan favorite on the stage and in the recording studio.

    • Because Wolfgang was part of the problem and would have done nothing about it.

      • Gurnemanz says:

        We’re talking about a man who banished his own mother from the Festival’s premises because she expressed support for Hitler in 1975. You honestly believe he would have had qualms about dropping a singer?

        • Absolutely, he was unrepentant until the end. He dropped his Mother to save himself a problem as she would not stop talking about her love for the time. Purely political.

  2. Mikhail Hallak says:

    Thanks for showing another angle to this story, Norman!
    I had dinner a couple days ago with someone who knows Nikitin well, my friend confirmed the story about cleaning up and walking this difficult line of staying sober and clean.
    Now hopefully the man can go on, sing and live his life!

  3. “If Nikitin was less resilient and had fewer friends, Bayreuth might have blood once again on his hands.”

    Now Mr. Lebrecht, that comment seems a little over the top…depression or not, this cannot be Nikitin’s first encounter with the fact that a career in opera isn’t always sunshine and roses.

    As for the entire incident, I find the media and public’s reaction harder to swallow than the initial one from Bayreuth. I can understand the Wagner family’s position in making a quick decision — it would not be a stretch to consider that if the media got hold of the fact that a swastika tattoo was crossing the planks of the Festival House, the reaction would have been one of outrage (witness the attitude here around the discussion of the bass-baritone in ’76, whose behavior, not even a generation removed from the war that we often seem to forget many Germans were emotionally invested in with little to no knowledge of the atrocities reported later, is less shocking). I am also not certain why everyone is so willing to accept Nikitin’s evolving story and that he had no idea why the spider on his chest, intended to be a swastika or not, might make people nervous. And it is incredible that he can’t remember when in the last year the monstrosity was actually finished.

    There very well may be more to this whole story…it is only a shame that most have already leapt to the conclusion that the Wagner family is entirely to blame. Will publishing all of their private documents really assuage the masses’ enjoyment at crucifying them for the ‘sins’ of their forebears’ associations?

    • “witness the attitude here around the discussion of the bass-baritone in ’76, whose behavior, not even a generation removed from the war that we often seem to forget many Germans were emotionally invested in with little to no knowledge of the atrocities reported later, is less shocking”
      Very well put…there’s alot of thought which has been packed into that observation. Thankyou.

  4. Paul Wells says:

    Good luck getting the design on Nikitin’s chest from the last two letters of the KISS logo. The KISS fable is at least the third alibi peddled on Nikitin’s behalf since this story broke, and it actually manages to be less credible than the others. I’m all for forgiving youthful indiscretion, especially if it permits everyone to stop coming up with lousy cover stories.

  5. A tiny little geography correction: Nikitin was born and raised in Murmansk – an Arctic seaport which is very cold and isolated, yes, but is about as far from Siberia as you can be in the Russian far north. (The city is near Russia’s borders with Finland and Norway.)

  6. Petros Linardos says:

    I don’t understand what the old stories about Wolfgang Wagner’s tacit acceptance of nazis in the 70′s have to do with Katarina’s and Eva’s recent overreaction to Nikitin.

  7. I ran the photographs by a major tattoo artist, along with the explanation. He laughed, he said the story is bogus, no self respecting tatoo artist would create a swastika for an 8 point star. I maintain Nikitin was a skinhead at some point in his life and the swastika was intentional. The tattoo artist also agreed the new coverage work is recent when you compare it to the more settled tattoos on his body.

    Nikitin is not great enough that he cannot be replaced. Gelb will hear more of this as it gets closer to the Fall. My hunch, Nikitin’s singing days at the MET are over.

  8. Bob Burns says:

    It seems like ever time I see the word Bayreuth in print there is some extenuating circumstance having to do with its past. I understand that for some the place is a shrine to its founder; but to me it will always be a kind of focal point for all the Anti-semitic madness which has plagued Europe for centuries. Going over its history, I conclude that the world would be a better place is it was knocked down and a park put up in its place. Bayreuth and the Wagner name have so have warts that they cloud the music itself.

    Wagner’s *music* doesn’t need Bayreuth to survive or to be enjoyed. I love his music but I would give a plugged nickel to meet the man.

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