The Associated Press, in a story published in the Jerusalem Post Online, reports that the Deutsche Oper, one of Germany's leading opera companies, based in Berlin, has cancelled a performance of Mozart's Idomeneo, planned for November 2006, citing concerns that the production's reference to world religions, including Islam, raised an "incalculable security risk."
According to another report, carried by the BBC, the "Idomeneo" production, directed by Hans Neuenfels, shows King Idomeneo staggering on stage carrying the decapitated heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad. German press agency DPA said Berlin police have so far recorded no direct threat to the opera house.
Nonetheless, Deutsche Oper director Kirsten Harms said security officials had now warned of possible problems if the production went ahead, and that it was in the best interests of performers and opera-goers to cancel it.
A statement by Deutsche Oper read, ""We know the consequences of the conflict over the (Muhammad) caricatures."
Reactions to the cancellation were mixed. Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, said the director had made the wrong decision to scrap the production. "Our ideas about openness, tolerance and freedom must be lived out on the offensive," he told the Associated Press. "Voluntary self-limitation gives those who fight against our values a confirmation in advance that we will not stand behind them."
Germany's interior minister called the cancellation "unacceptable"
However, Germany's Islamic Council leader, Ali Kizilkaya, supported the cancellation, saying the Muhammad depiction could offend. "Nevertheless, of course I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid," he told Berlin's Radio Multikulti. "That is not the right way to open dialogue."
Not the right way, indeed. Following so closely the furor over the recent quotation by Pope Benedict of a medieval text criticizing Mohammed, this incident demonstrates the extent to which fear of Islamic fanaticism is already stifling free expression in Europe.
It is worth noting that although the scene depicts the severed heads of Poseidon (Neptune), Jesus and Buddha, as well as Mohammed, the Deutsche Oper was not concerned about a violent response from pagans, Christians or Buddhists.
On the other hand, although I am not familiar with the opera, based on a plot summary, it appears to me that the offending scene was added to this particular production when it premiered in Berlin in 2003, and is not part of the original opera. Indeed, the opera's story takes place just after the end of the Trojan War, hundreds of years before the life of Jesus and nearly a thousand years before the life of Mohammed. Part of the plot deals with the threat to Crete posed by a wrathful Neptune, who has been denied the promised sacrifice of the King's son. No doubt the message of the scene in question is that modern secular society should "slay" all gods and prophets of superstitious religion. To that extent, the production is indeed offensive to all religious people, not only Moslems, and carried an anti-clerical message that Mozart and his librettist, Gianbattista Varesco, are unlikely to have intended. (The theme of the original story is that true love conquers all.)
Indeed, it occurs to me that Deutsche Oper could have easily removed the one offending scene and still presented Idomeneo. So to a certain extent the secularlists have been hoisted on their own petard. Nonetheless, capitulation to the violent Moslem street is hardly a happy precedent.