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Opera Cancellation

Sabina CasagrandeSeptember 27, 2006

A violent scene with images of the Prophet Mohammed led Berlin's German Opera to take Mozart's "Idomeneo" from the schedule. The move has sparked a fierce debate on the limits of artistic freedom and religious respect.

Buddha, Mohammed, Poseidon and Jesus all appear in the operaImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Many religions could find director Hans Neuenfels' adaptation of Mozart's "Idomeneo" blasphemous. Although the opera itself makes make no reference to Islam, Neuenfels introduced the closing scene that depicts the decapitated heads of the Prophet Mohammed, Jesus Christ, Buddha and the Greek god Poseidon.

The director of the German Opera, Kirsten Harms, said she had made her decision in consideration of the "very agitated situation" caused by the remarks by Pope Benedict XVI. earlier this month.

Eine Religion macht sich beliebt 3
Kirsten Harms cancelled the opera on police adviceImage: AP

In a speech the pope made while visiting his native Germany, he quoted from a medieval text by Christian emperor Manuel II that criticized some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman." The speech had sparked outrage in the Muslim world.

"I see an opportunity here to lead an urgently needed discourse on the understanding between Islam and Christianity," Harms said. "It isn't the cancellation of the piece, but rather a possibility to react sensibly and simply conduct this discourse."

Political leaders stress dangers of self-censorship

Harms said she had received a warning that something could happen at the opera house if the piece were played. But Berlin police said they had received no specific threats of a planned attack.

Deutsche Oper setzt Idomeneo wegen Islamisten ab
Rehearsals of Idomeneo have been discontinuedImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

German politicians meanwhile cautioned against taking self-censorship too far. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany had to be careful not to retreat further because of fear from violent radicals. Hans-Joachim Otto, head of the parliamentary committee for culture and media, said artistic freedom and freedom of expression needed to be guaranteed.

"Western achievements are at stake here," Otto, a member of the free-market liberal FDP party FDP, told DW-RADIO.

Culture minister Bernd Neumann said Harms' decision was wrong. The removal of "Idomeneo" undermined creative freedom, he said.

"If worries about possible protests lead to self-censorship, that threatens democratic culture," Neumann said. "It requires tolerance and courage from us all: tolerance in the face of uncomfortable opinions and courage in the face of controversy. You cannot solve problems by being silent."

In this context, Neumann also referred to this week's moving of the controversial television film "Wut" or "Anger" from primetime to a late-night slot. The film about a violent youth of Turkish heritage in Berlin had been criticized in German media as portraying a negative picture of foreigners.

Muslim groups express mixed reactions

Kenan Kolat, who chairs an umbrella group of Turkish associations in Germany, criticized the cancellation. He said he could understand why some Muslims would be angered by the opera, but that they must accept creative liberty in a democratic society.

Weiter Proteste in Pakistan gegen Karikaturen
Muslims worldwide protested the European publication of Mohammed cartoonsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

"It's a pity they are scared of public discussion," Kolat said, adding that art was not politics. "Art must be free.

"It's a big difference whether the Pope or a politician says something or whether you're dealing with a performance or a caricature," Kolat said, referring to Muslim anger over the printing of 12 caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed by several European newspapers last year.

Aiman Mazyek, general secretary of the Central Council of Muslims, said the cancellation was "not a good decision." He said the discussion about the opera's production was therefore lost.

But Ali Kizilkaya, chairman of the Islamic Council for Germany, said the opera was offensive to Muslims and unacceptable.

"An opera or a caricature -- it doesn't make a big difference," Kizilkaya said. Islam considers any image of the prophet to be blasphemous.

It's a fine line between fear and respect

Klaus Staeck, president of Berlin's Academy of the Arts, said he found the reaction disproportionate. At the same time, Staeck said it was important to distinguish between fear of and respect for Islam.

"I have the feeling that we are on the way to developing a fear which increasingly restricts our perception of freedom of speech and artistic freedom," Staeck said, adding that otherwise the day would come when hardly anything would be possible anymore in the cultural sector.

Deutsche Oper
The German Opera is a Berlin landmarkImage: dpa

Still, even artistic freedom had its limits, Staeck said. Art didn't exist in a vacuum, but rather in the middle of society.

Rolf Bolwin, director of the German Theater and Orchestra Association, said he hoped the decision in Berlin would not affect program planning in the rest of Germany.

"It just can't be that we have to ask ourselves whether we can play pieces at all which center around religion or Islam," Bolwin said.

Christians and Muslims should watch the opera together

For many critics, opera director Harms is giving the impression that culture can be blackmailed. But Dieter David Scholz, an opera expert and author, defended her decision.

"This is to date really an unparalleled case in German cultural life," Scholz said. "It's a very serious situation and of course it's a great incalculable risk for the audience and for the director. She can't and shouldn't take this risk."

FDP parliamentarian Otto suggested Christians and Muslims watch "Idomeneo" together and then discuss it.

"Those would be positive signals to promote the coexistence of cultures and religions in Germany," Otto said.

His suggestion didn't fall on deaf ears. Delegates at Germany's first "Conference on Islam," which was called by German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble to address growing alienation between Germans and Muslim immigrants, issued a joint call supporting the staging of "Idomeneo."

"We would like to send a message by saying that we would like to attend it together," Schäuble said. "I think that is the right way to end a debate that is no one's interest, particularly not for the great majority of Muslims in Germany."