Two weeks after he quit the Bayreuth festival amid controversy over a Nazi tattoo, a Russian opera singer has called the swastika-like symbol on his chest a heraldic crest: "I am an artist, and I came up with it on my own," said Yevgeny Nikitin, who will perform in New York next year. "It's just my fantasy."
In late June, Bayreuth was plunged into controversy when a German TV programme reported that Nikitin had several neo-Nazi tattoos. He eventually dropped out of the festival's production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, saying that the tattoos were done in his youth and that he "was not aware of the extent of the irritation and offence these signs and symbols would cause".
Nikitin has since admitted that one large tattoo, which seemed to resemble a swastika, was started in 2006.
In a new interview with the New York Times, the 38-year old singer has denied that his most controversial tattoo had anything to do with swastikas or Nazism. "It's just an eight-pointed star with a shield on it, an axe, a sword crossed with a helmet on top," he said. "What is wrong with that?" The tattoo had to be inked in stages, he explained, because it "started bleeding", and in earlier phases it may have resembled a swastika. The tattoo was finally finished this year.
Nikitin said he failed to realise that the tattoo could have been mistaken for something else. "It just escaped me at the time. I was immersed in my art, my career," he said.
"I have absolutely no affinity for or connection to any neo-Nazi or fascist movement, nor have I ever in the past," he added. "Nazism in particular has been the source of great personal grief and loss. My two grandfathers were both killed by Nazi forces during the second world war."
The singer also said that he did not write the statement issued upon his departure from Bayreuth. "When I told them the truth [about the heraldic crest] ... the administration of Bayreuth told me that we can't publish it, because nobody's going to believe you," Nikitin recalled. "Since I was leaving, I gave them carte blanche to say what they wanted to preserve the festival ... I read the statement and said 'fine', and left."
"From what I understand ... he's guilty of being naïve and ignorant," said Peter Gelb, general manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera. "That doesn't disqualify you from singing on the stage of the Met."
Nazism is a sensitive issue for the Bayreuth festival, which only stages the work of Richard Wagner. The composer, who died in 1883, often expressed antisemitic views in his writings and was the favourite composer of many Nazi leaders.
Wagner's daughter-in-law, Winifred Wagner, who headed the festival under Nazi rule, was a strong admirer of Adolf Hitler.
The festival is run by his great granddaughters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier.