The South Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn will sing the title role in “The Flying Dutchman” at Bayreuth Festival after Yevgeny Nikitin withdrew because of Nazi symbols he had tattooed on his chest in his youth.
Four days before Jan Philipp Gloger’s production of “The Flying Dutchman” was due to open the festival, Nikitin announced he wouldn’t sing. German media had confronted him about the tattoos, which include a swastika that has since been partially covered over with a brightly colored design and dates back to his days in a Russian heavy metal band.
“I got these tattoos done in my youth,” Nikitin said in a statement on the website. “It was a big error in my life and I wish I had never done it. I was not aware of the extent to which these signs and symbols can cause anger and upset, particularly in the context of Bayreuth and the history of the festival.”
The Bayreuth Festival, which opens on July 25, is still grappling with its tainted past. Richard Wagner was Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer and the Nazi dictator was unstinting in his support of the opera festival. Winifred Wagner, the composer’s daughter-in-law and grandmother of the two current festival directors, was a close friend of Hitler and an admirer of his policies until her death in 1980.
Winifred’s two sons took over the festival in 1951. After Wolfgang Wagner’s resignation in 2008, the festival appointed his daughters Katharina Wagner and her half-sister Eva Wagner- Pasquier to run it. Katharina Wagner has promised to open the family archives for scholars to explore its history during the Nazi era and mooted the possibility of an exhibition.
The Bayreuth management welcomed Nikitin’s decision to withdraw, saying in a statement on its website that it “is in accord with the festival leadership’s absolute rejection of any form of National Socialist thinking.”
Nikitin would have been the first Russian to perform a title role at Bayreuth, the festival founded by Richard Wagner in 1876 in his purpose-built theater. His tattoos grabbed attention after German television station ZDF showed an archive clip of him performing bare-torsoed in a heavy metal band.
His replacement, Samuel Youn, studied singing in Seoul, Milan and Cologne. He has been a member of the Cologne Opera ensemble since 1999, and has previously sung in Bayreuth in secondary roles in “Parsifal,” “Lohengrin” and “Tannhaeuser.”
According to the Bayreuth statement, Gloger, the “Flying Dutchman” director, sees “immense artistic damage to the production” through the substitution that “it may not be possible to completely overcome before the premiere.”
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