Bayreuth Festival Opens Amidst Anti-Semitic Controversy

Bass-baritone Evgeny
Nikitin Withdraws
From The Flying Dutchman

Nélida Nassar  07.27.2012

The 2012 Bayreuth Festival, a temple dedicated to Wagner’s own musical oeuvre opened on Wednesday evening amidst a storm of controversy following the unexpected departure of the Russian star of “The Flying Dutchman” in an innovative and ground-breaking choreography and production.

Bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin, 38, the unique, new main role of the festival had to cancel his engagement because of tattoos with Nazi symbolism found on his body, four days before opening night. “I decided to give up my role at the Bayreuth Festival … as I did not realize the extent of offense and exasperation these signs and symbols, could cause especially in Bayreuth, and in the context of this festival” he said.

German media outlets have reported at least three tattoos with Nazi references on the singer’s chest: A swastika (which had another motif tattooed on top of it) and two Scandinavian runes. The festival’s association with the Nazi dictatorship’s senior officials is among the darkest chapters in the history of German music. Adolf Hitler, a regular guest of the festival, was celebrated there. The Führer’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is also considered a musical genius although a notorious anti-Semite.

According to the festival’s organizers, Nikitin’s decision to withdraw is “entirely consistent with the festival’s policy that rejects any form of the National Socialism ideology.”

The 31 years old German director, Jan Philipp Gloger, stated that “the artistic consequences were immense and too perilous” if Nitikin did not withdraw for this production that is under Christian Thielemann’s baton, unofficially considered the patron saint of the music festival.

On Sunday, the organizers announced that they had found a replacement for Mr. Nikitin’s lead role of “The Flying Dutchman” in the 40 years old South Korea’s, Samuel Youn. The baritone, who studied  in Seoul, Milan and Cologne, also performs the role of “King Herald” in the production of Lohengrin, scheduled for the July 27th program, two days after the opening of “The Flying Dutchman.” The opera is an adaptation from an episode in Heinrich Heine’s satirical 1833 novel “The Memoirs of Mister van Schnabelewopski (Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelwopski).”

For many fans, 2012 should also be the celebration’s prelude that would mark next year Wagner’s bicentennial. For this occasion, the German director Frank Castorf, of  controversial reputation, has selected to direct and choreograph the trilogy “The Ring or Der Ring des Nibelungen” the cycle of four epic operas inspired by Nordic legends: “Das Rheingold” (The Rhine God), “Die Walküre” (The Valkyrie), “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” (The Twilight of the Gods).

Solely dedicated to Wagner, the Bayreuth Festival is located in a remote Bavarian town in southern Germany that attracts for one-month the composer’s music worldwide aficionados and enthusiasts.

Each year, opening night brings the best of the German political and celebrity world where they climb together the “green hill,” the place called home, the “Festspielhaus,” a specially designed theatre conceived and supervised by Wagner personally. It contains many architectural innovations to accommodate the huge orchestras for which he wrote as well as his particular vision about the staging of his works.

Bayreuth is one of the most popular classical music festivals in the world where tickets hit the black market and are auctioned at steep prices (the official price varies between 35 to 280 euros). But for several years, Bayreuth seems to have lost its luster as several choreographies and productions have been unpopular. Also, vocal performances have been deemed insufficient and uninspiring.

While Wagner is celebrated in opera houses worldwide, in his temple at Bayreuth, the unimaginable happened last year. For Baumgarten’s “Tannhäuser” performance, the theatre had many empty seats. This was a first since the composer’s grandchildren, Wolfgang and Wieland, had revived the festival after World War II.

For some, the responsibility of the festival’s decline lies with Wolfgang daughters, half-sisters Katharina Wagner, 34, and Eva Wagner Pasquier, 67, who took the reins in 2008.  They succeeded their father who ran the festival for 58 years.

The Bayreuth Festival has arrived at a crossroad while reckoning with its past and charting the future.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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