The World From Berlin: Berlin Opera "On Its Knees Before Terrorists"

Kirsten Harms, director of the Deutsche Oper, thought that by cancelling a provocative Mozart production she would be avoiding controversy. Instead, an uproar over her perceived assault on freedom of speech and democracy has ensued.

Kirsten Harms talks to the press about her controversial decision to cancel the Deutsche Oper's production of Mozart's "Idomeneo."
DPA

Kirsten Harms talks to the press about her controversial decision to cancel the Deutsche Oper's production of Mozart's "Idomeneo."

On Tuesday, the Deutsche Oper, one of Berlin's three opera houses, announced the cancellation of a provocative production of a Mozart opera in hopes of avoiding potential Islamist terrorist attacks. The production would have included a scene depicting the severed head of Muhammad alongside those of other religious figures. But instead of avoiding controversy, the opera house's decision has fuelled attacks -- though from an altogether different source.

Over the last 24 hours, Kirsten Harms, the Deutsche Oper's chief director, has faced a constant barrage of incredulity and scorn from German public officials. The cancellation has been loudly condemned as a betrayal of basic German values and freedom of expression. Chancellor Angela Merkel is the latest to weigh in: "Self-censorship motivated by fear is not acceptable," she said late Tuesday.

The cancelled opera, "Idomeneo," was to be a re-staging of a production that premiered in 2003 in Berlin. Hans Neuenfels, the director of the production, added the severed-head scene to Mozart's staging. The first run three years ago wasn't subject to any organized protest, but Harms claims that she had no choice but to remove the opera from the fall schedule. After receiving word from Berlin police that an anonymous threat had been made against the opera house, Harms decided that it would be irresponsible to risk inciting an act of terror.

Nonetheless, public reaction has been unsparing. Wolfgang Börnsen, a culture spokesman for Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democratic party, accused the Deutsche Oper of "falling on its knees before terrorists." Meanwhile, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, organizer of Wednesday's Islam Conference, said Harms' decision to cancel was "ridiculous, unacceptable and crazy." German papers, it's safe to say, roundly agree with the sentiment.

The Financial Times Deutschland doesn't pull any punches. "The self-censorship of the Deutsche Oper is hysterical and stupid." The paper suggests that if one follows Harms' argument to its logical end, Germany would be paralyzed by crippling political correctness: "According to the opera house, soccer penalty kicks, political speeches and miniskirts would also have to be banned – because you never know if someone with a short fuse will flip out." When she got word of the anonymous threats, Harms should have stayed cool: "Most daily instances of self-censorship revolve around diffuse fears of bogeymen, rather than a sober analysis of actual dangers and possible counter-strategies."

The Handelsblatt also cautions Germans not to lose their heads. "Warnings from the police are important, but one can't hand over one's own critical reason to local security officials. Has the country lost the faculty to discriminate between a Mozart opera and conscious insults of Islam?"

The leftist Die Tageszeitung concurs that art can't attend to everyone's feelings. After all, "someone is always going to be disturbed by a play. That can't be any measurement." But the paper also wonders, given that the German Muslim community has always been peaceful, why Harms felt such fear. "It seems the media-fuelled Islam paranoia is a new variation of the proverbial German Angst," the paper writes. The real threat to freedom of opinion, then, isn't from radical Islamists: "Rather it's from cowardly administrators who let their programs be dictated out of fear."

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, true to its conservative elan, paints the controversy in bold, historical strokes. "This is about the danger that is lurking throughout all the Western democracies; it's about the danger to our civic traditions of thinking about and dealing with one another, the atrophy of our civil courage and the voluntary abandonment of our constitutionally protected freedom of speech." The editors fear that Harms has done lasting injury to Western culture: "The director of the opera house only wanted to help her theater. But, in doing so, she has damaged the very basis of the institution of the civic theater."

The one commentator to break with the uniform harangue is, unsurprisingly, the gap-toothed Franz Josef Wagner from the mass-circulation Bild Zeitung. Wagner is heartened by Harms' cancellation of the show, though for his own self-interested reasons: "I'm happy that you cancelled the opera," Wagner writes in his daily column, "Post from Wagner." On stage, the decapitated head of Muhammad was supposed to lay next to the head of my own God, the head of Jesus Christ." Wagner goes on to applaud Muslims for taking their religion seriously and to pity his fellow Christians for not doing the same: "I wonder why no one in Germany defends my religious feelings. We don't go to the barricades for Jesus Christ. My God doesn't have a lobby."

-- Cameron Abadi, 2:34 p.m. CET

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