This picture taken on July 8, 2012 shows Russian opera singer Evgeny Nikitin.
This picture taken on July 8, 2012 shows Russian opera singer Evgeny Nikitin displaying tattoos on his right forearm. Photo by AFP
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Russian opera singer Evgeny Nikitin has withdrawn from the Bayreuth Opera Festival because of Nazi tattoos on his chest and arm.

Nikitin, 39, withdrew days before he was supposed to sing the lead in Richard Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," after archival images of him playing drums in a heavy metal band -- chest bared and with shaved head -- were shown recently on German television and seen by the Bayreuth festival directors and conductor. Images of a swastika and other far-right symbols were plainly seen on his body, which is covered with tattoos.

Festival spokesman Peter Emmerich told the German news agency dpa that "thisis not business as usual." Emmerich said the festival is sensitive to issues related to the Nazi period, as Adolf Hitler was an admirer of Wagner and frequently attended the festival, and that the connection to Hitler is a badge of shame that postwar generations of Wagners have tried to confront.

Nikitin was called in to meet with the management on Saturday and was told about the significance of his tattoos in light of German history. Shortly afterward Nikitin announced that he would drop out of the festival, at which music by the 19th-century composer Wagner is presented. According to news reports, his understudy, the bass-baritone Samuel Youn, will sing the role on Wednesday for the festival opening.

A statement from the festival said the singer's decision to withdraw was in keeping with the festival's rejection of Nazi ideology and its trappings.

Nikitin later explained that the tattoos were a youthful folly that he regretted. In ensuing years he had other images tattooed over the swastika, but it remains visible.

Emmerich said the festival directors -- Wagner's great-granddaughters, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier -- normally do not pay attention to how a singer decorates his body. "We hire a voice, a singer," he told dpa. But this case was different, he said.

The Bayreuth festival dates back to 1876. To this day Wagner's music is eschewed by many because of the admiration that Hitler held for the composer and because of the composer's alleged anti-Semitism. The first postwar festival was held in 1951.