"Deutsche Oper Berlin to Go Ahead With Controversial Idomeneo Following Assurances From Police
(But Is It Worth the Effort?)"

Classic Arts News   "Deutsche Oper Berlin to Go Ahead With Controversial Idomeneo Following Assurances From Police
(But Is It Worth the Effort?)"
The Deutsche Oper Berlin announced today that it will go ahead with a controversial production of Mozart's Idomeneo which was cancelled last month due to fears of political or sectarian violence. The decision follows yesterday's determination by Berlin police that they find no "concrete danger" to the company if it presents the opera.

According to BBC News, the Deutsche Oper released a statement saying that it "has begun without delay the relevant preparations for reviving the opera." A company spokesperson told the Associated Press that the house hopes to present two performances of the production before the end of the year.

The staging — by Hans Neuenfels, an exponent of the freewheeling, often deliberately outrageous directorial style referred to in German as "Regieoper" (and by many a grumpy Anglophone as "Eurotrash") — ends with an added scene in which King Idomeneo removes from a bloody sack the severed heads of the prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, the Buddha and the Greek sea god Poseidon (the last being the only one of the four religious figures who actually features in the opera's plot).

Deutsche Oper superintendent Kirsten Harms called off the production, which had been scheduled for four performances in November, late last month, following a generalized warning from authorities that the added final scene might outrage some Muslims, who might potentially attack the opera house. (Exactly who gave this warning to the Deutsche Oper is now unclear.)

Neuenfels, for his part, has said that the scene is his (and his Idomeneo's) protest against all forms of organized religion and has insisted that it cannot be removed from his staging.

Nervousness about the potential for violence was high in the wake of the widespread protests and riots following a Danish newspaper's publication last winter of cartoons caricaturing the prophet Muhammad. In canceling the production (which had been presented at the house in 2003 and 2004, drawing some anger but no violence), the Deutsche Oper said in September that authorities had warned that presenting 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."

A surprising furor broke out in Germany after the cancellation was announced: far more public figures chastised the Deutsche Oper for caving in to fear and abandoning freedom of expression than praised the company for prudence or good judgment. Leaders of all the major political parties spoke out — right up to German federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said that "self-censorship out of fear is not tolerable." Pundits and Muslim community leaders weighed in, and the story was reportedly on the front page of nearly every newspaper in the country for about a week.

After spending days as the target of criticism and dispute, Harms said early this month that she would consider reinstating the production if the Berlin police department re-assessed the situation and determined that adequate security arrangements could be made. With today's announcement, she appears to be making good on that statement.

The police announced their findings on the matter yesterday, according to reports from the Associated Press and other services. "A concrete danger for the Deutsche Oper or those working with it is not seen at the present time," the Berlin police statement said. "What possible measures may be taken by the police or the Deutsche Oper will be discussed in consideration of the situation close to the date of the performance."

The problem with this entire brouhaha, as critic David Patrick Stearns pointed out earlier this month in The Philadelphia Inquirer, is that "whether or not the production goes forward next month, issues about artistic freedom and intimidation by special-interest groups — all very important — are being raised on behalf of a production that could well be an embarrassment to other daring opera directors, and to opera in general."

The very model of a revisionist German opera director (and "among the least credible" of the bunch, according to Stearns), Neuenfels has shown Aida dragging around a mop and bucket, the entire chorus of Meyerbeer's Le Prophte turned into robots, and Osmin in Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio unloading a trunk full of severed human heads and limbs. 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 and a dreadlocked Prince Orlofsky screeching and grunting his music while snorting cocaine.

While Stearns hasn't seen this Idomeneo, he finds in Neuenfels's past work a prime example of "artistic license so out of control that it becomes [gratuitous,] high-budget provocation" — and less than ideal as a standard-bearer for freedom of expression.

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