The Head of the Prophet Berlin To Stage Controversial Opera

Berlin's Deutsche Oper hasn't had much luck getting sell-out crowds lately. But with politicians, Muslims, international journalists and police turning out for its controversial staging of Mozart's "Idomeneo" -- complete with the decapitated head of the Prophet Muhammad -- the opera house's fortunes could change.


These days, Alexander Busche feels more like an actor in an absurd play than the spokesman of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. The opera employee has just received instructions from the Berlin police department on what to do in the event of a bomb threat. "Ask what the bomb looks like and where it is," he says, reading from the document, which he finds highly amusing, adding that he hasn't had any bomb threats so far. Nor has he heard from al-Qaida. One week before the opening night of a revival of director Hans Neuenfels' staging of the Mozart opera "Idomeneo," both the actors and the Berlin police are rehearsing for what promises to be a unusual event.

On Monday, December 18, the German cultural community will take a stand with an unprecedented production -- and with a manifestation of the freedom of art, one that will be led by none less than Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, of the conservative Christian Democrats. Schäuble and nine of the 15 members of the conference on Islam he initiated will look on as, in the finale of what is otherwise viewed as a relatively cumbersome opera, the severed heads of Poseidon, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad are presented to the audience.

Following the Danish caricature scandal earlier this year, the scene proved so sensitive that the revival of the opera was cancelled in September. The police feared attacks, even though no one had made any threats. Unlike the caricature episode, what outraged the international community this time was the cowardly fear of a nonexistent enemy -- an anger that reverberated around the world. And next week, members of the international press are certain to be manning their posts in Berlin. And those who want to see the divisive closing scene will have to sit through a lengthy two and three-quarter-hour performance before they get to the juicy bits.

Le Monde will be watching

Reporters from the Washington Post to Le Monde, and from Bulgarian state television to the Iranian and Saudi Arabian news agencies will be on hand. TV channel 3Sat, broadcast in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and to the rest of Europe by satellite, will feature a live broadcast of the grisly story of the king of Crete straight from the opera house. Deutsche Oper spokesman Busche says he is only slightly irritated by reporters who erroneously dubbed the Mozart work "Odomino" or "Idomedea" on their orders for press tickets.

Busche's feathers weren't even ruffled when the four scandal-ridden severed heads vanished without a trace late last week, triggering an opera house-wide search for the missing heads. In the end, the opera says it will make replacement models if the props aren't found.

In fact, all the uproar over the production has been a godsend to the Deutsche Oper. The 1,865-seat opera house has made headlines in recent weeks, less for cultural reasons than for the simple reason that it costs the city too much money. Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, a Social Democrat, said that the city could only afford two of its three opera houses.

Indeed, the employees at the Deutsche Oper are more terrified of the mayor these days than of all religious conservatives combined. Critics point out that the opera house has only been selling about two-thirds of its seats this year, leaving the city with the burden of servicing its more than €36.8 million in debts.

"A slap in the face to art"

But if the hopes of some opera employees come to fruition, that could all change with the new "Idomeneo" production. Their calculus? It would be difficult to cut city funding for an opera house that is so courageously defying Islamist intolerance and is even being supported by some Muslims.

"The cancellation was a slap in the face of art," says Kenan Kolat, who heads the umbrella group of Germany's Turkish community and plans to attend the production. Kolat is disappointed that some of his fellow Muslims are not planning to see the opera, including Mounir Azzaoui, the spokesman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. Azzaoui said, simply and poignantly, that he has never been to the opera and does not "intend to do so this time."

Kolat expects "a quiet evening," and the police force in the German capital seems to agree. As relaxed as it may seem today, as recently as July Berlin police were warning against a "threatening situation with unpredictable consequences for public safety and order."

Yet despite the more relaxed atmosphere, Berlin police spokesman Bernhard Schodrowski still faces a daunting task. It's his job to explain why terrorism experts from the state criminal investigation department believed in July that an attack on the opera was possible, whereas they now believe that the threat has passed, especially with the severed head of Muhammad making headlines as far away as Guatemala.

In a statement, the Berlin police department writes: "We had no information about planned attacks then, nor do we have any today." Of course, police spokesman Schodrowski "clearly rejects" accusations that the earlier warnings were created as a result of political opportunism.

There is only one person who is troubled by all this newfound harmony: the production's original director, Hans Neuenfels, who says he has no plans to see the production. "It's enough," he says, that his production is being staged at all. The revival that director Kirsten Harms is "turning my work into" at the Deutsche Oper, says the master, abruptly and somewhat incomprehensibly, "is shit."

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