Just as the baritone Yevgeny Nikitin was about to become the first Russian to sing the lead role in a Wagner opera (The Flying Dutchman) at Bayreuth, a scandal broke out. Alas, the elaborate pattern of tattoos covering most of Mr Nikitin’s body included a swastika with a superimposed emblem of the SS.
It has to be said – and I realise that there exist notable exceptions – that in musical circles singers vie with percussionists for the honour of being the most stupid musicians of all. Mr Nikitin happens to be both a singer and a drummer, so the poor lad never had a chance.
Even considering that, the apology he offered is remarkable in its sheer daftness: ‘I 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.’
Really? How daft does one have to be not to realise this? As a brush, is the answer to that one. Bayreuth organisers are understandably sensitive about any open manifestations of pro-Nazi sentiments. It’s not just that some of their predecessors, such as Winifred Wagner, were out-and-out Nazis – let bygones be bygones and all that. But Wagner himself, both in his writings and his music, exerted a formative influence on Nazism.
Jumping backwards, Wagner, this ‘Puccini of music’, leapfrogged two millennia of Western culture, landing in the middle of Germany’s pagan past. His sylvan world full of hobgoblins, magicians and witches was filled with pagan images and sounds. Profoundly anti-Christian, his music not so much contradicted as complemented his writings that were one contiguous anti-Semitic rant.
The quality of this music is in my view grossly overrated. Though undoubtedly gifted, Wagner relied heavily on emotional manipulation, which made his work highly seductive. So much so that even people with decent taste are often seduced by it, though those whose taste goes beyond decent usually see through Wagner well enough and tend to stay immune to his emotional blackmail.
Hitler and his friends found in German Romanticism in general and particularly in Wagner the aesthetic and philosophical justification for their monstrosity. The Nazis, including der Führer himself, would weep at Bayreuth and, thus inspired, would go off to murder millions. That doesn’t mean Wagner’s music shouldn’t be played, and Israel’s near-ban on performing it is in my judgment wrong. But neither should the link between Wagner and Nazism be dismissed as post hoc ergo propter hoc.
That explains why the current organisers of the festival are touchy about the swastika, and why Nikitin, jumping before he was pushed, had to pull out of his engagement in all haste. Personally, if I were the organiser, I would have withdrawn his invitation simply because his body is covered with tattoos, regardless of their content. This doesn’t just betoken but positively screams affiliation with a culture that’s not merely different from ours but aggressively hostile to it. A creature like Nikitin doesn’t belong in classical music any more than rap lyrics would belong in a Shakespeare sonnet. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day and then carve thee up, thou bitch’ somehow doesn’t ring possible.
Nikitin himself dismisses the Nazi tattoo as a youthful indiscretion. As a young lad, said the 38-year-old singer, he belonged to a heavy-metal band. It was then that he indulged in a bit of body art, and now his tattoos play no role in his life.
He’s lying through his teeth, as any Russophone can find out for himself by looking up Nikitin’s interviews on Russian television. For he still runs a heavy-metal band, performing naked to the waist, his tattooed torso for all to see. The multi-talented musician plays the drums as he sings unmusical songs with his own frankly cretinous lyrics. These suggest that the feelings that inspired the swastika are still bubbling somewhere in the far recesses of what passes for Nikitin’s mind.
His big hit is called Warrior. We must all be warriors at heart, preaches the song. Presumably even those of us who have supposedly devoted their lives to classical music, if opera falls into that category. One can see why Wagner is close to Nikitin’s heart. So fine, we must all be warriors, but must we also all wear brown shirts? Or should we be content with psychedelic T-shirts, battle fatigues and army boots that Nikitin usually wears in the after hours?
‘How do you make the transition from classical singing to heavy metal?’ asked the sympathetic interviewer. ‘No transition is necessary,’ answered Nikitin, this time truthfully. For the likes of him indeed there’s no gap to bridge. Our own Nigel Kennedy or Freddie Kemp could have given the same answer. This explains the general level of our musical performances – the present crop of performers have mastered the physical aspect of their art, after a fashion, while remaining deaf to its spiritual content.
Actually, as far as our polymath is concerned, there is a difference. Heavy metal opens up all sorts of new possibilities for self-expression. ‘We’ve already said everything that could be said through classical music,’ he explains. ‘I can say a lot through this new sound.’ He certainly can. About the same things he says through his swastika. ‘I’m a mystic,’ adds Nikitin. So was Wagner. So was Hitler. So was Himmler. Pagan mysticism is the soul of Nazism, just as concentration camps are its body.
A singer, drummer and poet, Nikitin is also a painter. In his interviews he proudly displays his canvas depicting a desert scorched by the sun. ‘This is how the earth will look in a million years,’ explains the musician cum artist cum mystic cum philosopher, cum prophet, ‘when our tiny sun explodes into a huge one, making life on earth extinct.’ With him and his lot around, the prospect isn’t all that frightening.
‘Everything belongs to us,’ bellows Nikitin, banging his drums. I’m afraid he may be right. Run for the hills.