2006 Idomeneo controversy
On September 26, 2006, the Deutsche Oper Berlin announced the cancellation of four performances of Mozart's opera Idomeneo, re di Creta, planned for November 2006, citing concerns that the production's depictions of the severed head of the Islamic prophet Muhammad raised an "incalculable security risk." "To avoid endangering its audience and employees, the management has decided against repeating Idomeneo in November 2006," the opera house said in a press release.
The Idomeneo production, directed by Hans Neuenfels, shows King Idomeneo staggering on stage carrying a bag of the severed heads of Neptune, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad and placing each on chairs; a departure from the libretto, in which the action is set in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Only Neptune features in the plot, and his power is never destroyed. The scene was intended to symbolize the people's release into freedom without gods or idols.
According to the BBC, the German press agency DPA said Berlin police have so far recorded no direct threat to the opera house. However, The New York Times reported that there was an anonymous threat in August against the theatre.
The cancellation sparked a great deal of debate in Europe on the issue of self-censorship and the nature of free speech in a multicultural community that includes potentially violent Muslims. On September 27, 2006, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel stated: "I think the cancellation was a mistake. I think self-censorship does not help us against people who want to practise violence in the name of Islam ... It makes no sense to retreat." Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, after a government-sponsored conference with Muslim representatives held independently of the incident, told reporters that "[t]o send a signal, we could all go to the performance together," and the Muslim representatives agreed that the performance should not be cancelled.
The severed-heads ending scene is a recent addition by director Neuenfels to the original, 225-year-old opera, which was last performed by the company in March 2004.
On December 18, 2006, the Berlin Opera staged Mozart's work with the newly added controversial ending scene amid mixed reactions, but no incidents (with a small security force and large foreign media contingent). Demonstrators were present outside, as well, including supporters of religious tolerance and Christian protesters (presumably relating to the inclusion of the severed head of Jesus). Various members of German government attended with German Muslim groups, with the notable exception of the central Muslim Council's general secretary, Iman Mazyek, who was quoted by Al Jazeera English as saying, "It's part of the concept of freedom of opinion and thought that you also have the right to say you are not going.".
Kirsten Harms, director of the Deutsche Opera, said that the public's reaction to the scene was "very civilized".
- "Religious fears force off opera", BBC News. Retrieved September 26, 2006.
- "Opera Canceled Over a Depiction of Muhammad", The New York Times. Retrieved September 26, 2006.
- "Merkel warns against bowing to fear of Muslim violence", Daily Times/Reuters, 28 September 2006
- "Muslims agree it was wrong to silence Mozart opera", Daily Mail (28 September 2006)
- "Berlin opera pulled over Muhammad scene", Yahoo News[dead link]
"Berlin Opera Pulled Over Muhammad Scene" by Melissa Eddy, Associated Press (27 September 2006) at Backstage[dead link]
- Berlin police protect Mozart opera, Al Jazeera English