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Idomeneo (controversy)

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On September 26, 2006, the Deutsche Oper Berlin announced the cancellation of four performances of Mozart's opera Idomeneo, re di Creta. The performance had been planned for November 2006, citing concerns that the production's depictions of a 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 decapitated heads of Neptune, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad and placing each on chairs; a departure from the libretto and score. According to the BBC, the German press agency DPA said Berlin police have so far recorded no direct threat to the opera house.[1] However, The New York Times reported that there was an anonymous threat in August against the theatre.[2]

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."[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

On December 18, 2006, the Berlin Opera staged Mozart's 225-year-old production with the newly-added controversial ending scene amid mixed reactions and no incidents (with a small security contingent — and large foreign media gaggle). Demonstrators were present outside, as well, including supporters of religious tolerance and Christian protesters (presumably relating to the said scene which included 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."[6].

Kirsten Harms, director of the Deutsche Opera, said that the public's reaction to the scene, which symbolized people's release into freedom without gods or idols, was "very civilized".


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