BERLIN, Germany (AP) — A leading opera house called off a production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” that features the severed head of the Prophet Mohammed, setting off a furious debate Tuesday over Islam, freedom of speech and the role of art.
The furor is the latest in Europe over religious sensitivities — following cartoons of the prophet first published in a Danish newspaper and recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI decrying holy war.
Kirsten Harms, director of Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, announced “with great regret” that she had decided to cancel the three year old production after state security officials warned it could provoke dangerous reactions in the current politically charged climate.
After its premiere in 2003, the production by Hans Neuenfels drew widespread criticism over a scene in which King Idomeneo presents the severed heads not only of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, but also of Mohammed, Jesus and Buddha.
The severed heads are an addition by director Neuenfels to the 225-year-old opera, which was last performed by the company in March 2004.
Harms defended her decision, which she described as “weighing artistic freedom and freedom of a theater … against the question of security for people’s lives.”
But the move immediately provoked strong reactions across Germany.
Outraged politicians called the decision to pull the production “crazy” and “a fatal signal” of caving into extremism. Response from Germany’s Islamic community was mixed, with some praising the decision and others calling on Muslims to accept the role of provocation in art.
The leader of Germany’s Islamic Council welcomed the move, saying a depiction of Mohammed with a severed head “could certainly offend Muslims.”
But in an interview with German radio, Ali Kizilkaya added: “I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid … That is not the right way to open dialogue.”
The leader of Germany’s Turkish community said it was time Muslims accepted freedom of expression in art.
“This is about art, not about politics,” Kenan Kolat told Bavarian Radio. “We should not make art dependent on religion — then we are back in the Middle Ages.”
Neuenfels has insisted his staging not be altered, saying the scene where the king presents the severed heads represents his protest against “any form of organized religion or its founders.”
“I stand behind my production and will not change it,” Neuenfels told the Berliner Morgenpost in its Tuesday edition.
The opera house’s decision comes after the German-born pope infuriated Muslims by quoting the words of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as “evil and inhuman,” particularly “his command to spread by the sword the faith.”
Earlier this year, violent protests erupted across the Muslim world after a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad. The caricatures were reprinted by dozens of newspapers and Web sites in Europe and elsewhere, often in the name of freedom of expression.
Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depiction of Mohammed for fear it could lead to idolatry.
“We know the consequences of the conflict over the (Mohammed) caricatures,” Deutsche Oper said in a statement. “We believe that needs to be taken very seriously and hope for your support.”
Berlin security officials had warned Harms that staging the opera could “in its originally produced form …. pose an incalculable security risk to the public and employees.”
But Germany’s interior minister condemned the cancellation.
“That is crazy,” said Wolfgang Schaeuble, the country’s top security official, speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C. “This is unacceptable.”
It is not only Muslims who have been offended by depictions of religion in art.
Last month Madonna sparked criticism from some Roman Catholics in Germany for a show that staged a mock crucifixion. Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, “The Passion of Christ” met with disapproval from some Catholics and some Jews. In 2004, a Birmingham, England, theater canceled its run of “Behzti” after a violent protest by members of the Sikh community.
Still, many in normally open and tolerant Berlin, which has become a home for cutting edge and often contentious artistic productions, cautioned against compromising on issues of freedom of speech and art.
“Our ideas about openness, tolerance and freedom must be lived on the offensive. Voluntary self-limitation gives those who fight against our values a confirmation in advance that we will not stand behind them,” said Mayor Klaus Wowereit.
Bernd Neumann, the federal government’s top cultural official, said that “problems cannot be solved by keeping silent.”
“When the concern over possible protests leads to self-censorship, then the democratic culture of free speech becomes endangered.”