Muslim Hate of Opera
Merkel warns against bowing to fear of Muslim violence
By Madeline Chambers
September 27, 2006
BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned on Wednesday against bowing to fears of Islamic violence after a Berlin opera house cancelled performances of a Mozart work because of concerns some scenes could enrage Muslims.
"We must take care that we do not retreat out of a fear of potentially violent radicals," Merkel was quoted as saying in Hanover's Neue Presse newspaper. "Self-censorship out of fear is not tolerable."
Merkel's comments, which echoed those of other senior German politicians, fuelled a row over the cancellation of Mozart's "Idomeneo" which is overshadowing a government-sponsored conference on Wednesday to promote dialogue with the country's 3.2 million Muslims.
Berlin's Deutsche Oper said on Monday it had cancelled performances of the opera, which shows the severed heads of the Prophet Mohammad, Buddha, Jesus and Poseidon, after police warnings that it could pose a "incalculable" security risk.
The row comes two weeks after Pope Benedict enraged some Muslims by quoting from a medieval text linking the spread of the Islamic faith to violence.
Last year's publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper triggered violent Muslim protests.
The government's integration commissioner told broadcaster ZDF the opera controversy would feature at the conference.
"We must together stand up against intolerance and violence, that is the point of such a conference," said Maria Boehmer.
The meeting aims to tackle issues such as equal rights, the building of mosques, Islam lessons and imam training.
Integration has become a priority for the government as concern grows about the emergence of an underclass of disillusioned young Muslims, mainly Turks, in Germany and about fears of Islamic radicalisation across Europe.
A recent outbreak of violence at a Berlin school where the bulk of pupils are immigrant children and last year's "honour killing" of a Turkish woman have highlighted the challenges faced by the government and Muslim communities.
Muslim groups are participating in the conference but some say it lacks a clear goal and has an inappropriate guest list.
Germany brought over unskilled labourers from Turkey after World War Two to help drive its economic boom. There are now about 1.8 million Turks in the country.
As Germans cancel Mozart opera, arts world shudders
Saturday, September 30, 2006
San Francisco Chronicle
This week's suspension of a controversial production of Mozart's opera "Idomeneo" by a Berlin opera company rides a global tide of unsettling questions about free expression, censorship, religion, ethnic sensibilities, multicultural ideals and public safety. Artists who express contrary or unpopular viewpoints on such issues as Islamic customs, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Christian doctrine risk everything from boycotts to bannings to death. Humor, music and drama have become lethal weapons to some observers. Live theater, line drawings and film are seen as ideological swords in a warfare of ideas and beliefs. All that was stirred up again when the curtain came down on Mozart in Berlin.
Concerned that director Hans Neuenfels' staging of the 1774 opera might offend Muslims and provoke some action, the German Opera withdrew a production that was scheduled to open in November. (At press time, discussions about possibly reinstating the production were under way.) In Neuenfels' interpretation of "Idomeneo," first mounted by the company in 2003, one scene depicts the King of Crete hoisting the severed heads of Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon.
German Opera officials insisted they were not bowing to any specific terrorist threats. A spokesman cited an anonymous phone call indicating that Muslim audiences might be upset. That may have been enough, in a world keenly sensitized by ethnic and religious clashes and violently expressed points of view, to scuttle the production. The cancellation was promptly and roundly decried as self-censorship.
Pamela Rosenberg, former general director of the San Francisco Opera and now a top administrator with the Berlin Philharmonic, said in an e-mail that "99 percent of the commentators have condemned the cancellation even though most of them probably have not seen the production, including me. But that is not the point. It is the principle they are fighting for and which they see endangered." Rosenberg noted that a few Christians and Buddhists -- but no Muslims -- protested this "Idomeneo" when it was first staged three years ago. In the wake of the current controversy, both Muslim and Christian leaders in Berlin view the cancellation as counterproductive.
"My knee-jerk reaction would be to go on with the show," said David Gockley, San Francisco Opera's current general director. "I don't like the idea of the terrorist mentality forcing us to bend to their will. But you do have this primary responsibility to protect the public. I empathize with the woman (German Opera Manager Kirsten Harms) who had to make that decision. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't."
"It all raises such mixed feelings," said Berkeley Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Tony Taccone. "If you're doing the kind of theater that makes a difference, you're always flirting with people's boundaries and seeing how far you can push the envelope. But as a producer you want to be inviting everyone to the table. The real problem comes from people who haven't seen your work. They just hate you because they've heard you're against them."
Connie Wolf, executive director of San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, said the Berlin controversy "reminds us of the frailty of culture." She continued, "Artists are raising important questions, but we as a society are a bit frightened to be open to these ideas. We need a safe place to discuss them, and it's unfortunate that the arts are being attacked in this way, when they really are a place for exploration."
In the European arts world, those issues have a stark and immediate context. Last year, Danish cartoons that caricatured Muhammad provoked a firestorm of virulent protests and riots, especially in Muslim countries. An exhibition in Iran countered with cartoons that mocked the Nazi Holocaust. Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose incendiary work included a short film, "Submission," about the treatment of Islamic women, was murdered in Amsterdam in 2004 by Muslim extremist Mohammed Bouyeri.
England's Birmingham Repertory Theater cut short a 2004 run of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's "Behzti" (or "Dishonor") when Sikhs mounted a violent protest. The play, set in a Sikh temple, depicted beatings, rape and homosexuality. In an echo of the 1989 Salman Rushdie fatwa after the publication of his novel "The Satanic Verses," playwright Bhatti, fearing for her life, went into hiding.
Recently, Madonna's use of a crucifix in her concerts, plus Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas' supposedly Christian-baiting musical "Jerry Springer -- the Opera" have drawn protests and boycotts. Even Voltaire, the Enlightenment Age writer, has come under attack. Last year, a reading of his "Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet," a satire on religion that was decried as anti-Catholic when it first appeared in 1741, spurred a brick-throwing riot by Muslims in the small French town of Saint-Genis-Pouilly.
Battles have played out on American soil as well. This spring, in a hotly discussed move, the New York Theatre Workshop pulled a planned production of "My Name Is Rachel Corrie." Based on the writings of a 23-year-old Washington state woman and Palestinian rights activist who was killed in Gaza by an Israeli army bulldozer in 2003, the play ran in London to considerable acclaim. Citing a need to "contextualize" the piece following the Palestinian elections that swept Hamas into power, Artistic Director James Nicola indefinitely postponed the New York production. Many accused the theater of bowing to pressure from Jewish interest groups.
"Jim's a colleague," said Berkeley Rep's Taccone. "But this looked like an act of political cowardice at a time when it's become very important for people to stand up for things and not cave into the fear." The play is now scheduled to open next week at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York.
The "Rachel Corrie" incident recalled an earlier religion-inflected controversy, over Terrence McNally's 1998 play "Corpus Christi." First canceled and then reinstated by the Manhattan Theatre Club, the play, which portrays a Jesus-like figure and his disciples as gay men, premiered under threats to bomb the theater and exterminate the playwright. "Corpus Christi" subsequently ran in San Francisco without incident.
In the liberal and largely secular humanist Bay Area arts world, ideological confrontations over religion and ethnic divisions are relatively rare and sporadic. A spokesman for the Asian Art Museum said there had been no overt controversies over shows of Islamic or any other kind of art there. Taccone had to think hard to recall any incidents at his theater, but did say "The People's Temple" made some participants in that long-gone sect angry. "We heard it from them," said Taccone, "that we told their story wrong."
Hollywood films have produced as much heat and friction as anything in recent years. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" polarized audiences with its graphic depiction of Jesus' physical suffering and the movie's perceived anti-Semitism. "The Da Vinci Code," which poses a theory that Jesus might have married Mary Magdalene and fathered a child, was banned in various countries. Albert Brooks courted controversy with "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," but the indifferently received film raised barely a ripple.
Steven Spielberg's "Munich," a controversial historical drama about the assassination of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics and the revenge killings by Israel's Mossad agents that followed, provoked impassioned debate. Tony Kushner, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth, was charged with various ideological shortcomings, including the contradictory ones of being an apologist for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, Kushner argued that the film drew charges of "moral equivalence" for failing to "reduce the Middle East controversy, and the problematics of terrorism and counterterrorism, to sound bites and spin." During wartime, he said, artists are often expected to create clear divisions of good and evil. But it's the contradictions and complexity of art, as Kushner put it, that may be the most important weapons. A key aspect of the struggle against terrorism, he wrote, "is the struggle to comprehend terrorism."
Rosenberg called the "Idomeneo" cancellation in Berlin "dismaying and dangerous." But the churning debate over it, she added, was "healthy because everyone is openly discussing issues such as censorship, 'otherness,' tolerance and the role that religion should or should not have in civic life. And this debate just might help put a stop to creeping self-censorship."
Chronicle staff writers Kenneth Baker and Jesse Hamlin contributed to this report.
October 04, 2006
BY GEIR MOULSON
BERLIN -- Pressure mounted yesterday on the Deutsche Oper Berlin to rescind the cancellation of a production that depicted the beheading of the Prophet Muhammad, with Chancellor Angela Merkel saying "there can be no compromises" on free speech.
In addition, Berlin's top security official suggested the cancellation was a mistake, and Germany's top Protestant cleric added his voice to those calling for the opera to be re-staged as soon as possible.
Kirsten Harms, director of Deutsche Oper Berlin, defended her decision to pull the 3-year-old production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" over fears of how Muslims may react to the scene, which also features the severed heads of Jesus and Buddha.
She announced the decision last week, after receiving a vague warning about possible security problems relayed to her by Berlin's state interior minister, Ehrhart Koerting.
Harms indicated that, with the right security guarantees, the opera could be re-staged, although she offered no specific promise.
She said she had been put in a difficult position after caricatures of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper ignited outrage in the Muslim world earlier this year.
"What would have happened if something had happened and we had ignored these indications?" she asked during a discussion at the opera house. "That also justifiably would have been cause for great indignation."
Koerting was interrupted by heckling -- and some shouts for his resignation -- from the audience at the half-full opera house.
"It was probably wrong that the piece was not staged," he said. "In this case, I reacted in that I took a bit too much consideration of security. That may be a mistake -- but I say better a bit too much than a bit too little."
Later, he argued that the opera should be brought back -- "we should say from our understanding of ourselves that 'Idomeneo' should be staged again at the Deutsche Oper."
The security situation is "no worse" than before the debate erupted, he said.
Merkel warned last week against "self-censorship out of fear."
"It is not forbidden in Germany to feel hurt; you also don't have to go to the opera," the chancellor said yesterday in a speech in the city of Kiel marking the anniversary of German reunification.
"But about freedom of art, freedom of speech, the press, opinion, religion, there can be no argument about that," Merkel added. "There can be no compromises here."
Germany's top Protestant cleric, Lutheran Bishop Wolfgang Huber, also called for the opera to be re-staged -- but also criticized the addition of the severed heads, arguing that it showed a lack of "thoughtfulness."
The response to Harms' decision from Germany's Islamic community has been mixed, with some praising it and others urging Muslims to accept the role of provocation in art.