Opera cut for fear of inciting Muslims

BERLIN — BERLIN -- Mozart has survived grandiose conductors and abstract interpretations, but the librettos for his operas never cast Islamic radicals threatening a skittish theater company.

On a day of messy drama and furious debate over free speech, German Opera in Berlin reaffirmed its decision yesterday not to revive a production of Mozart's Idomeneo for fear of inciting Islamic extremists over a scene showing the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad.


The cancellation of a work that has run intermittently since 2003 drew rebuke from politicians and theater critics, who regarded it as a defeat for creative expression and a victory for militant Islamists over liberal European tradition. The company's decision came as Muslim tensions on the continent have risen since the publication last year of Danish cartoons lampooning Muhammad and recent comments by Pope Benedict XVI about Islam and violence.

"There have been no concrete terrorist threats against the opera," said Michael Nerkle, a Berlin police spokesman. "We received an anonymous call that certain scenes might be offensive to Muslims. In light of [the violent protests] against the Muhammad cartoons, it was appropriate to inform the opera house."


In a terse news conference, German Opera Manager Kirsten Harms said she canceled the show after security officials informed her there would be "incalculable risks" if the production reopened in November.

"If I would ignore this, everyone would say, 'She has ignored a clear warning,'" said Harms, adding that director Hans Neuenfels refused to restage the show. "It is always easy to say, 'This is the decision of a coward.' But as head of this opera house, I had to decide like that."

Idomeneo is the ancient story of the king of Crete's pact with the Greek god Poseidon to sacrifice his son. The production by Neuenfels, known for his controversial interpretations, is a meditation on enlightenment that shows the king lifting the severed heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad to suggest that too much reliance on religion can endanger the human spirit.

"Closing this opera is a very alarming," said Markus Schwering, critic for Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger, a Cologne newspaper. "The production is anti-religious, but it must be allowed in a free society. It's not a singular attack on Islam. It says religion in general can produce inhumanity and superstition. The danger I see now is that theaters may stifle provocative art. We need to have a real and very serious debate on this in Germany."

Mixing satire with anger, Wolfgang Boernsen, cultural spokesman for the Christian Democratic Union, the nation's leading conservative party, said: "Hurray, we are capitulating. To drop a production critical toward religion out of fear from possible terrorist attacks is hurting the freedom of art."

"With the Berlin opera decision, which is a bow before terrorists, the radical scene is encouraged to continue to pressure and threaten Western culture and Christianity," he said.

Most Muslim organizations were unaware of the opera. Ali Kizilkaya, the leader of Germany's Islamic Council, said the production would offend Muslims, but he told Berlin's Radio Multikulti, "Nevertheless, of course, I think it's horrible one has to be afraid. That is not the right way to open dialogue."

Kenan Kolat, the national chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, which represents immigrants, expressed similar sentiments, reflecting more of a cultural and political sensitivity to the West than suggested by the violence inspired by Middle East clerics over the Muhammad cartoons. Kolat told a news Web site: "I recommend that all Muslims ... accept certain things. Art has to stay free."


A poll by German television network N-24 found that 92 percent of those questioned were opposed to canceling the production.

The opera company's announcement comes the same week the government is holding a conference to improve relations with the nation's Muslim leaders. The sponsor of the conference, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, was in Washington yesterday. When he heard of the opera's cancellation, he told reporters: "That is crazy. This is unacceptable."

Neuenfels could not be reached for comment. He earlier told the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel: "Where will we end if in the future we allow ourselves, in foresighted obedience, to be artistically blackmailed?"

Neuenfels' reading of Idomeneo and the depiction of beheaded divinities infuriated the largely Christian audience when the show opened in 2003. "They cried and smashed doors. It was a typical Berlin theater scandal," said Schwering, the Cologne critic. "It lasted two or three days and then died down."

But, in recent years the continent has experienced terrorist bombings in Madrid and London and increasing problems with integration. In August, German authorities arrested two Lebanese students for an alleged plot to blow up trains. Such an atmosphere has led to intense police surveillance and growing suspicion between Europeans and immigrants Muslims.

Kay Kuntze, director of the Berlin Chamber Opera, said: "If we give up the central point of our culture -- the freedom of art -- we end up giving up our entire culture."


Jeffrey Fleishman writes for the Los Angeles Times.