« Midweek Madness: A swingin' summery song from (the original) January Jones | Main | Hippodrome confirms 'Book of Mormon' for 2013-2014 season »

July 27, 2012

Trying to enjoy Wagner, guilt-free, and mostly succeeding

I adore Wagner's music, but, every now and then, I feel terribly guilty about it. And conflicted. Self-contradictory, too. Lately, the mix of enjoyment and queasiness really got to me.

It started with the weird story of Evgeny Nikitin, the Russian baritone who was supposed to sing the title role in "The Flying Dutchman" at Bayreuth, the festival/shrine in Germany that Wagner built to honor himself.

Nikitin withdrew (or was pushed out) a few days before Wednesday's opening performance after pictures surfaced showing a certain hideous symbol among his many tattoos. Yep, the swastika. (The picture here does not show the offending image. It's on his chest.)

Nikitin said he got the tats in his wilder young days when he was a member of a heavy metal band, as if that was justification. Didn't the Russians have a little trouble with the Nazis, too? Wouldn't a swastika be a really stupid thing for a Russian to decorate his body with?

Subsequent reports and images of the offending portion of the singer's chest confused the issue somewhat. Another design appears to have been placed over the swastika, as if in an attempt to obscure it. Whatever. The damage was done and, like any tattoo, will be awfully difficult to erase.

The issue just reminded everyone all over again about the hideous connection between Wagner and the Nazis, between the Nazis and Bayreuth, where Hitler was such a warmly welcomed guest.

I think the festival's decision to part ways with Nikitin was understandable and justifiable. Anything to avoid a scandal. But I know others will howl about over-reaction and hyper-sensitivity. I also imagine that ...

the baritone will eventually get his Bayreuth moment anyway, when things die down, as they always seem to do. (He's still scheduled to sing at all sorts of other opera houses, of course, including the Met.)

What bugs me about all of this is that it makes me have to think about the Wagner-Nazi connection all over again, just when I'm having so much fun plugging into live performances from Bayreuth (my online fave for this is Spain's RTVE).

I love doing (or at least trying to do) my work at the paper while in Wagnerian nirvana, trying not to add exclamation points to every line. I know that Lori, my nearest pod mate at the Sun, will invariably turn to me when she sees my ecstatic expressions and say, "Listing to that Nazi composer again?" But it's worse now that I have the image of Nikitin's ugly swastika in my mind.

We all know that Wagner died long before Hitler was born, so it is unfair to think of the composer as a prototype for National Socialist hero. But we all also know that Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite, and that he was the Nazi's musical poster boy, so it's hard not to consider some kind of guilt by association.

Part of me doesn't want to go that route -- the part of me that also embraces the artistry of Furtwangler, who led the Berlin Philharmonic throughout most of the Reich years; and Mengelberg, the Concertgebouw conductor who acted awfully pro-Nazi during the occupation of Holland.

I try to rationalize all of this by thinking that truly great artists can't make worthless art, no matter how black their souls may be. It's a naive view, I know.

When I was experiencing the rapture Thursday afternoon, listening to the live "Tristan" broadcast (is there anything more heart-racing than the love duet, more heart-stopping than the Liebestod?), I simply could not hear the evil in Wagner, only the genius. Sometimes I think I must be terribly flawed that I can do that so easily.

In the same way, I am always rooting for Daniel Barenboim and the few other brave musicians who have tried to break the barriers to performing Wagner in Israel, even though I know how painful and complex that issue is for anyone in that country -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- who survived the camps, who witnessed first-hand the Wagnerian soundtrack to the most evil chapter in the modern history of the human race.

I do not expect to come fully to terms with any of this. I just had to unburden myself now, before slipping my earphones back in to rejoin the Bayreuth Festival -- today is "Lohengrin." I hope to listen guilt-free, but that doesn't mean I won't think about all of that other, terribly dark stuff again. We all should, regularly. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:18 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes


What I find odd in all this silly kerfuffle about the swastika that may or may not be on Nikitin's chest, is that nobody seems to have mentioned that there are huge Nazi swastika banners ON STAGE at the end of Act 2 of the current production of Parsifal (which I saw in person last year). They come crashing to the ground at the end of the act, in one of the most thrilling theatrical moments I have ever experienced, but there were REAL swastikas in full view at Bayreuth for quite a few minutes.

--Howard Bond, Cockeysville

Maybe the attitude at Bayreuth is that it's OK for the company to make deliberate use of Nazi imagery to score a point in a production, but not OK,if someone arrives already making use of it personally. It certainly is not a cut-and-dried business. TIM

The same people who condemn Wagner then go and listen to Carmina Burana, ignoring Carl Orff's antisemitism and real membership in the Nazi Party.

Evgeny Nikitin sings russian song "Varyag":

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected