A Russian singer is at the centre of an opera world uproar, having withdrawn from Germany's famed Bayreuth Festival amid a row over Nazi-related tattoos on his body.

Yevgeny Nikitin, a rising star of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, was slated to sing the title role in a brand new production of The Flying Dutchman debuting Wednesday at the venerable Bayreuth Festival. He was to sing opposite Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka.

On the weekend, the bass-baritone withdrew from the role and the festival.

"I was not aware of the extent of the irritation and offence these signs and symbols would cause, particularly in Bayreuth given the context of the festival's history," the 38-year-old singer said in a statement posted online.

"As a result, I have decided not to appear at the Bayreuth Festival."

He described the tattoos as a folly of his youth that he regretted. He has also stated they hold no political meaning for him.

His "decision to pull out of the role is fully in line with our policy of completely rejecting Nazi ideology in any shape or form," the festival said in a statement.

Nikitin, who had been slated to be the first Russian to sing a title role at Bayreuth, will be replaced in the role by Korean singer Samuel Youn.

Targeted in media reports

Regularly mentioned in biographical write-ups about him, Nikitin's body art was emphasized on Friday in a German TV feature about the heavily tattooed former heavy metal musician-turned-opera singer. His unlikely background and appearance was also emphasized in newspaper articles.

At issue are Nazi-related symbols, including a swastika, that he had tattooed on his chest in his younger days. The offensive symbols were only partially obscured by latter tattoos — many of which were displayed in images in the German media reports.

A festival spokesman told German news agency Deutsche Welle that organizers had not vetted what the singer "wears under his shirt."

However, in an earlier interview, Nikitin mentioned that he thought his tattoos might become part of the imagery in The Flying Dutchman, since he'd been asked to submit photographs of all his body art. "They will probably be put on display rather than covered up," he said at the time.

Defended by Munich opera chief

Born in Murmansk, a Russian city north of the Arctic Circle, Nikitin admits to having been a rebellious youth who sang and played in Russian heavy metal band during his teens. However, fearing compulsory military service and thanks to his conductor father's persistence, he eventually landed at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. There, his musical talent was channeled into opera and, at the age of 24, he was discovered by famed Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.

Christian Thielemann, the German maestro conducting The Flying Dutchman, bolstered the criticism against Nikitin in an interview with Berlin media and underlined the illegality of Nazi imagery in Germany.

"A swastika is a no-go, not only in Bayreuth. It wouldn't be acceptable in Australia, either," said Thielemann, who along with festival co-chief Katharina Wagner had initially invited Nikitin to audition for the part.

However, his contemporary Nikolaus Bachler, head of Munich's influential Bavarian State Opera, was among those who came to Nikitin's defence.

Bachler blasted Bayreuth's leadership — singling out co-chiefs Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier — for their handling of the matter.

"The affair is more a problem for Bayreuth and the Wagner family than for the singer," he told Agence France-Presse in a statement on Monday.

"It is dishonest that the foolishness of a 16-year-old rock singer, who has long regretted his actions and tried to undo them, is being punished by the Wagner family... They are clearly pointing the finger at someone else because they have a problem with their own past," Bachler said.

"The whole affair is extremely ugly and shows how very much present the past still is."

He also noted that he had no problem featuring Nikitin, as planned, in Wagner's Lohengrin at the Bavarian State Opera in November.

The storied Bayreuth festival, conceived by composer Richard Wagner to stage his own work, has a troubling historical tie to the Nazi regime. Wagner himself was notorious for penning anti-Semitic texts and later, during the era of Nazi rule, some of his heirs befriended and associated with Adolf Hitler, who was a fan and a regular visitor to Bayreuth.