Evgeny Nikitin – defining yourself through symbolism

Watch out David Brent, Nikitin’s in town

Forgive me today, because what I’m about to write can be viewed as nothing other than a rant. I thought long and hard before I wrote this piece, going backwards and forwards about whether this was the right place to go out on a limb with a highly opinionated thought-dump. But, in the end, I came to the opinion that, if you can’t say it in your blog, where can you say it! And this story really, really riles me.

Over the past few weeks, the name Evgeny Nikitin has been getting a huge amount of column inches in newspapers, websites and blogs, and the reason is this: on the brink of performing the role of the ‘Flying Dutchman’ in Germany’s Bayreuth Festival, old video footage of the Russian bass-baritone’s tattoos were discovered by the German press. Among other distasteful tattoos (and there are more than one of them) there was a tattoo etched upon his chest of what is clearly a Swastika, a symbol that has become synonymous with the Nazi movement.

Tattoos as the symbol of the 2012 Bayreuth Festival

The Bayreuth Festival has been fraught with controversy since the time that Hitler ruled Germany, due to its lock-tight links to Wagner and various documented relationships with Nazi party members and ideology. Over the past decades, there have been concerted efforts to eliminate this connection to Nazism, which have met with varying degrees of success… but that’s another post, another story.

This year, the star of the show was to be Evgeny Nikitin, a singer who seemed to cut through musical divides with his past associations with Heavy Metal music and heavily tattooed torso. The organizers of the Bayreuth Festival obviously thought it was a wonderful idea to use the tattoos of Nikitin on every publicity shot, with the clear underlying message of, ‘hey look, we’re cool – our lead performer has tattoos.’

The plan backfires

The original tattoo

With the symbolism of the festival agreed upon, it must have come as a huge shock to the organizers to find that these same tattoos that were to define this new age of ‘cool’ included a large, prominent piece that, in an earlier iteration, had been a symbol that is so offensive to so many around the world – the Swastika.

The immediate response of the festival was to terminate their relationship with the singer on the spot. The plan had clearly backfired in the most spectacular fashion.

The follies of youth

Following the revelation and ensuing scandal of tattoo-gate, Nikitin had this to say on the subject:

“I had these tattoos done in my youth. It was a big mistake in my life and I wish I had never done it”

And then:

“I was not aware of the extent of the irritation and pain these signs and symbols would cause especially in Bayreuth and in the context of the history of the festival”

Well, there you go. An admission. Nikitin is clearly aware of the tattoos he had painted on his person as a young man and feels some sort of regret, right? Wrong.

These statements were promptly followed by a number of conflicting statements that included claims that he had never been aware of what the symbols meant and even a bizarre plea to the rebel in us all, stating that getting these tattoos was just part of the “good, crazy things” you do when you are young.

Well, I once knew someone who went to Thailand and got a tattoo in the local alphabet that ended up meaning something quite other than what they had originally intended. Maybe I’d describe that as a ‘good, crazy’ thing and forgive the idea that they had no idea what it meant. But a Swastika, in this day and age, from an educated, 21st century opera singer… do me a favor.

The plot (and tattoo) thickens

So, here we are at the latest stage of this drama, with the most recent proclamations from Nikitin that these tattoos were never meant to represent a Swastika, but were the initial stages of a larger piece that is in fact an eight-pointed star. Convenient, to say the least.

Apparently, Nikitin bled so much during the initial sitting for the tattoo that he was forced to stop, just at the stage when the tattoo resembled the famed Nazi symbol. The tattoo was finished this year and is a big, thick, black blotch of a star that leaves no trace of the original imagery.

Now, call me a cynic, but if I had gone to a parlor, all hyped up about getting my new Smurf tattoo and had to stop due to the bleeding. And, if I’d then gone on to look in the mirror and seen that the outline looked exactly like a Ku Klux Klansman, I think I would have stayed in there as long as it took to get that image off of my chest.

I can hazard a guess that I wouldn’t have waited a further 6 years to finish the tattoo. I’m also pretty certain that I wouldn’t have gone onto stage shirtless and flaunted this KKK imagery to the watching public. Shame and decency would have stopped me from doing that.

Redemption

The main reason I wrote this post is that I don’t think that other posts have come anywhere close to my viewpoint on the subject. So many commentators have said something along the lines of ‘well, if we were all judged on what we did when we were young, where would we be as a society.’ Some have even said that they really don’t know what the big deal is.

Now let me state clearly – I am a strong believer in redemption. I believe in second chances and, yes, I am acutely aware that if I was to be constantly judged on what I had done when I was young I would not have half the friends I have today.

However, let me just say this. Forgiveness comes at a price. It’s a small one, but there’s a price nonetheless. You have to at least admit that you have done something wrong and feel some remorse. Ignoring the issue doesn’t redeem you, neither does flip-flopping from one excuse to another when presented with the clear facts of the matter.

If Evgeny Nikitin had stuck with his first story (I was young and stupid – and I’m sorry) then I believe that this issue would not have come to where it stands today. But when you worm around in a whirlpool of self-preservation, spouting out completely conflicting explanations, more often than not people find it difficult to believe anything that you say.

Rant over.

P.S. – Make sure you don’t miss out on the latest excellent opera posts on the Falstaff Music Blog http://falstaffmusicblog.wordpress.com/

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