The month’s biggest classical news reads a little bit more like a debate over self-expression than a music story. Last week, Russian opera singer Yevgeny Nikitin was forced to withdraw from the legendary Wagnerian festival at Beyreuth after a controversy over his tattoos caused a debate that has spread through the classical music world like wildfire. The 38-year-old Nitikin was slated to open the festival in the lead role in The Flying Dutchman last Wednesday when recent news stories that featured photographs of Nitikin’s extensive body art came to light. While reports in the media differ on the details, the general consensus is that Nitkin’s tattoos–two of them in particular–caused some degree of discomfort among the management of the Beyreuth festival, as they are potentially reminiscent of two symbols adopted by the Nazi regime under Hitler.
According to a report by the UK’s paper The Telegraph, Nitikin “got the tattoos as a young man. He has a large swastika on the right side of his chest and on the left a ‘life rune’, a symbol used by the SS Lebensborn project, which supported ‘racially pure’ Aryan women.” Other reports differ on the details of the tattoos, and it is not entirely clear whether Nitikin does in fact have a swastika on his chest. One report from the blog parterre.com suggests that it was once a swastika but has been altered while providing a link to an article in Russian media discussing the body art: “the swastika tattoo formerly on Nikitin’s right breast is still clearly visible in the photo associated with the article.” Still other reports, including one from The New York Times, report the presence of the charged tattoos as certain. Yet another report of the story from music blog Intermezzo reports that the tattoos were unknown until a story on Nitikin in German media featured an interview and some past footage of him playing bare-chested in a metal band years ago. This German video shows Nitikin with a different incarnation of the tattoo he currently sports on his right chest, one that bears enough resemblance to a swastika to make the Festival management at Beyreuth uncomfortable and that has prompted speculation of a more recent ink job to cover what was once there. The details of the story are, as the Times itself admits, “changeable.”
The Beyreuth Festival has, very naturally, a heightened sensitivity to the appearance of any Nazi-related symbolism, as it came forth as the personal project of Richard Wagner, said by many to be a “virulent anti-Semite.” Further complicating matters are the facts that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer and that the festival at Beyreuth had strong Nazi ties both before and after World War II. Nonetheless, Nitikin has issued several statements regarding his body art after the festival asked him to leave, and he explains that his image choices were inspired by Nordic runes and his own great interest in his Nordic ties and in history in general: “The symbols have absolutely no political significance for me, but a spiritual one. I was never a member of a political party and am still not today.” Nitikin further said in a statement released by the Beyreuth Festival that he 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. I had them done in my youth. It was a big mistake and I wish I’d never done it.” A translation from Russian-language statement on the artsjournal.com site reads:
I have never and do not belong to any political groups, neither left nor right. National Socialism in all its manifestations is deeply disgusting to me. My two grandfathers perished in the Great Patriotic War! I
declare categorically that my tattoos do not relate to Nazi symbolism.
One side of the chest shows Nordic runes. I was fascinated at the time by Nordic sagas. The tattoo on the other side has never had anything to do with the swastika. This was supposed to be eight-pointed star, and in the center – the emblem, which I invented myself. In the video, I removed from the unfinished tattoo, non painted outlines of where someone seemed like a swastika. But, I repeat, this was an intermediate stage, the tattoo was unfinished. I never wanted to have a swastika on my body and even more so would not pose in front of a camera like this.
Nitikin’s tattoos were done between 1989 and 1991, and his own past is somewhat at odds with what one might expect from your average opera star. Raised in the Arctic port of Murmansk, Nitkin has interest in metal music as well as in medieval history: in a 2008 autobiographical essay he wrote for a Russian magazine, he says that “My body is covered with tattoos. Mostly they are old tattoos, not very well done. Childish pranks, the result of a huge amount of free time. But there are a few which carry symbolic weight: for example, there are old Scandinavian runes, because I’m really fascinated with medieval history. In France I am a member of club of medieval warriors. We have real battles, not staged ones, using genuine cold metal, weapons forged according to medieval fashion….I read a lot of historical literature, because you cannot escape your roots. Many of us have forgotten who we really are.”
As for the significance of Nitikin’s tattoos and whether or not they represent political views he has held or does hold, no one can know other than Mr. Nitikin himself. Of the decision to ask Nitikin to withdraw from Beyreuth, the leadership of the festival says that it was “in line with the festival leadership’s consistent rejection of any form of Nazi ideas” and had been made as a joint decision after the festival managers discussed with Nitkin “the connotations of these symbols in connection with German history.”
While the much of the controversy over Mr. Nitikin’s tattoos continues in the media–is it or is it not a swastika? Was it then but is it not now? What did he mean by it if it was? –it seems clear that the exact details and motivations are known only to Nitikin. The events at Beyreuth surrounding this change, though, have sparked a firestorm of international debate over any number of hot-button topics. The debates range from the appropriateness and justness of the forced withdrawal to the wisdom of having so many tattoos as a performer to the question of prejudice against tattoos in the classical world. Each report of the Nitikin tattoo controversy takes a different stance and presents a different facet of the story, which is now mired with many layers of twisted and convoluted debate. It seems that many voices in classical music have merely been waiting for a spark to ignite debate on some of these issues, and Mr. Nitikin’s withdrawal has given many observers of the classical scene an opportunity to sound off.
No matter the perspective, it is clear the Mr. Nitikin’s tattoos and the Beyreuth Festival created something of the perfect storm in the delicately balanced worlds of classical music and politics. Any other festival would likely not have had such a stake in its reaction to Mr. Nitikin’s tattoos, and, in all probability, any two other tattoos would likely have slipped under the radar at Beyreuth. The discussion of the myriad issues that are brought to light by this controversy is likely to continue for some time, and articles across the internet are quick to extrapolate and apply the specific circumstances of this case to broad and general situations. To some this is a case of unjust punishment for youthful indiscretions, to others an example of a private employer exercising its right to dismiss an employee who does not represent the organization as it would like to be represented. Still others speak of elitism in classical music–of a prejudice against performers who do not fit the clean and polished norm–and others beyond that see a case of justifiable punishment for perhaps harboring political views that are deeply hurtful to many. The case of Mr. Nitikin and his exit from Beyreuth holds a mirror up to the face of classical music, inviting each person to see in the reflection that which he most wants to see. While the debate rages on, one can only hope that, whatever conclusion a reader may draw from this, good comes to all parties and that the airing of these various issues and opinions serves the community well.