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.