Singer quits Wagner festival over Nazi tattoos

BERLIN Sun Jul 22, 2012 10:58am EDT

BERLIN (Reuters) - A Russian opera singer has pulled out of the Bayreuth opera festival over Nazi tattoos on his chest days before the start of the celebration of Richard Wagner's works that was once popular with Third Reich leaders.

Evgeny Nikitin was meant to play the Flying Dutchman in Wagner's opera of the same name but German newspaper and TV images have shown him bare chested with tattoos that resemble symbols used by the Nazis.

One looks like a swastika, which appears to be covered by a new tattoo in more recent pictures.

"I had these tattoos done in my youth. It was a big mistake in my life and I wish I had never done it," Nikitin said in a statement on the festival's website.

"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," he added.

Nikitin resigned after the festival's management confronted him with the media reports showing his tattoos.

"His decision to give back the part of the Dutchman for these reasons is in line with the consistent rejection by the festival's management of any form of National Socialist thinking," the festival's management said on its website.

The Bayreuth Festival, which was conceived by Wagner, dates back to 1876 and is celebrated for its stagings of his operas, including "Tristan and Isolde", "Parsifal" and the four operas of the monumental cycle "The Ring of the Nibelung".

Although Wagner, who penned several anti-Semitic texts, died half a century before Adolf Hitler came to power, the Nazi dictator was an admirer and drew on the composer's writings in his own theories on racial purity and exterminating the Jews.

Winifred Wagner, Wagner's daughter in law, who headed the festival under Nazi rule, was a close personal friend and an admirer of Hitler's until her death in 1980. Hitler frequently attended the festival.

Wagner's work has played to sold out crowds at the festival since the mid-1950s, with eager opera enthusiasts often waiting as long as 10 years for tickets to the Bayreuth Festspielhaus theatre.

The annual opera frenzy is a highlight of German cultural life, providing both scandal and entertainment. Chancellor Angela Merkel visits it regularly and it is one of only few occasions a year where her husband Joachim Sauer accompanies her in public.

(Reporting by Annika Breidthardt; Editing by Michael Roddy)