The work in question isn't one that actually depicts Muslims, such as Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio or Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri, well-known comedies that depict a European heroine in the harem of a Muslim ruler. The cancelled production is of Idomeneo, Mozart's retelling of the Greek myth of a king who must sacrifice his own son to the sea god Poseidon in order to fulfill an overly rash vow.
According to the German radio network Deutsche Welle, the production by Hans Neuenfels depicts, in an added epilogue, King Idomeneo carrying onto the stage a bloody sack, from which he pulls four severed heads — those of the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, the Buddha and Poseidon — and places them on four chairs.
The scene caused outrage when the production was premiered at the Deutsche Oper in 2003. In a statement, the company said that authorities had warned that going ahead with this season's revival would pose an "incalculable risk," and therefore, "to avoid endangering its audience and employees, the management has decided against repeating Idomeneo in November 2006."
According to Deutsche Presse-Agentur and Deutsche Welle, the Berlin police emphasize that they know of no specific threat against the opera house.
The cancellation has led to an uproar in German political and cultural circles. Interior Minister Wolfgang Sch‹uble said yesterday from Washington that the cancellation was "crazy" and "unacceptable," according to Deutsche Welle, which quotes Wolfgang B‹rnsen, the culture and media spokesman for the conservative parties in the Bundestag (German parliament), comparing the Deutsche Oper's decision to an "act of prostration to the terrorists."
The Associated Press quotes Ali Kizilkaya, the head of Germany's Islamic Council, as telling Berlin's Radio Multikulti that a depiction of the Prophet's severed head "could certainly offend Muslims" and that the cancellation was the responsible thing to do.
"Nevertheless," he went on, "of course I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid ... That is not the right way to open dialogue."
The AP also quotes a leader of the Turkish community in Germany, Kenan Kolat, as telling Bavarian Radio that "This is about art, not about politics. We should not make art dependent on religion — then we are back in the Middle Ages."
Kirsten Harms, Intendantin of the Deutsche Oper, defended her decision in a press conference today. "If I were to ignore this and say, 'We are going to stage this nevertheless, or because of this,' and something were to happen," the Associated Press quotes her as saying, "then everyone would say — and would be right to say — 'She ignored the warning of security officials.'"
She took pains to point out that the authorities recommended, but did not order, that the production be canceled or the offending scene cut.
Neuenfels, for his part, said that "I stand behind my production and will not change it," according to the Berliner Morgenpost. He described the scene in question as Idomeneo's protest against "any form of organized religion or its founders."
The November 5 and 8 performances of Idomeneo will be replaced by a G‹tz Friedrich staging of Le nozze di Figaro; those on November 15 and 18 will be replaced by Friedrich's production of La traviata.
This is not the first time a Hans Neuenfels production has caused controversy. He is the very model of a revisionist German opera director, his work emblematic of the Regieoper (roughly, "director's opera") phenomenon notorious among tradition-minded opera lovers. Neuenfels has shown Aida dragging around a mop and bucket and had the entire chorus of Meyerbeer's Le Prophte turn into robots. His staging most familiar to US audiences is probably the 2001 Salzburg Festival production of Die Fledermaus (available on DVD), which had Adele singing her Laughing Song with blood-spattered newspapers, extraneous characters stopping the action to recount grisly fables, and a dreadlocked Prince Orlofsky screeching and grunting his music while snorting cocaine.