"Idomeneo" Opera Prophet's Head Rolls, and Nobody Cares

After a great deal of sturm and drang about artistic freedom, opera fans and politicians attended the controversial Hans Neuenfels production of Mozart's Idomeneo opera. The holy heads rolled, but the night was otherwise peaceful.

Kirsten Harms, the director of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, was the center of attention on Monday.

Kirsten Harms, the director of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, was the center of attention on Monday.

When a controversial production of Mozart's Idomeneo premiered in 2003, it was an uneventful night at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. But this year, the opera's reproduction was anything but usual. Not only did opera-goers on Monday face unprecedented security, but they also had to plow through the international press just to get to their seats.

The controversy stems from the final scene of the opera, conceived by director Hans Neuenfels, not Mozart, in which the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon are stripped down to their underwear and decapitated as a metaphor for man's liberation from organized religion.

One man yelled "stop it!" and "boo!" from the nearly sold out auditorium, but was quickly overruled by cries to "continue, continue" and prolonged applause, as dozens of plainclothes security officers looked on. But despite the disruptions, the reaction from the audience was decidedly anti-climactic, given the hefty debate that preceded the production.

The polemic erupted when the piece was dropped from the schedule in September due to vague concerns about a possible violent backlash from religious fundamentalists. The Deutsche Oper's General Manager Kirstin Harms later put it back on the plan after she was widely accused of sacrificing artistic freedom in an act of "self-censorship out of fear," as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it.

Harms's concern was born out of the violent reaction in the Muslim world to cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad printed in a Danish newspaper earlier this year. Pope Benedict XVI's Sept. 12 speech, which many read as an attack on Islam, likewise frayed Muslim nerves. But the opera went off peacefully on Monday.

Several prominent politicians attended the opera, including Berlin's Mayor Klaus Wowereit, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and several representatives from Germany's religious communities. They were greeted by hordes of journalists -- 250 according to the opera house -- thoroughgoing security officers and metal detectors.

The precautions delayed the raising of the opening curtain by 30 minutes, as some 1,760 guests lined up outside to be searched and scanned. Opera employees had to wear special wristbands for identification. "We are ready for any eventuality," said police spokesman Bernhard Schodrowski. In the end, he says, "it was a wonderful, peaceful evening."

Indeed, there was but a single demonstrator standing outside the opera house with a sign that read, "Artistic freedom or Jesus Christ?" Horst Stutz, a member of the evangelical church, believes that Neuenfels is a self-centered provocateur who went too far, to the detriment of religious freedom.

Meanwhile, Muslim agitators were nowhere to be seen. Kenan Kolat, leader of a national association representing Germany's 3 million Turkish immigrants, attended the show, saying he wanted to "make a common stand" with his German compatriots. And Ali Kizilkaya, chairman of the 150,000-member German Islamic Council, said he favored free speech but declined to see an opera which he personally finds "tasteless and bloody."

With reporting by Daniel Haas and Anna Reimann, and material from AP and Reuters.


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