FRANKFURT — Russian singer Yevgeny Nikitin, who pulled out of his debut at this year's Bayreuth Festival in a row over a Nazi tattoo, said Sunday the swastika had no political significance for him.
The 38-year-old, who was to have taken the title role in a brand-new production of "The Flying Dutchman" at the month-long summer music festival dedicated exclusively to the works of Richard Wagner, said he had not been aware of the Nazi associations of the tattoos.
"It was not clear to me that the symbols that I have tattooed on my chest could have any connotations or even by used by Nazis and neo-Nazis," he wrote in an email to the Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
The bass-baritone said he had them done in Russia in 1989, 1990 and 1991 and chose the symbols from books about Nordic mythology and the tattoo parlour's catalogue.
"The symbols have absolutely no political significance for me, but a spiritual one. I was never a member of a political party and am still not today," Nikitin wrote.
The singer plunged the legendary Bayreuth Festival into turmoil on Saturday by quitting just days before the curtain is set to go up on the new production on the festival's opening night on Wednesday.
The appearance of an artist connected in any way with Nazism would have been an embarrassment for Germany's political and social elite who traditionally attend the glitzy opening gala.
And it would also have cast the festival -- founded by Wagner himself and regarded as the world's oldest summer music fest -- in a very dubious light.
Wagner, a notorious anti-Semite, was Adolf Hitler's favourite composer and after the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, Hitler became a regular guest at the Festspielhaus built on Bayreuth's fabled "Green Hill".
According to historian Volker Koop, quoted by the Bild am Sonntag, Nikitin's tattoos include the so-called "Tyr" and life runes worn by members and volunteers of the Nazi's SS.
Another symbol that appeared to have resembled a swastika that has apparently been covered over with another tattoo.
The scandal erupted after Nikitin's tattoos were the subject of a special feature shown on an arts programme of the ZDF public television on Friday.
Festival spokesman Peter Emmmerich said the singer himself offered to pull out of the production after being summoned to a meeting with festival chiefs Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier.
Nikitin was calm but displayed "great naivety" when questioned about the swastika, Emmerich said.
Korean Samuel Youn, 40, will take Nikitin's place in the title role of "The Flying Dutchman" which is to be performed six times during the festival that runs from July 25 to August 28.