German Politicians Rush to Secure Opera

The Associated Press
Friday, September 29, 2006; 12:45 PM

BERLIN -- German lawmakers called on authorities Friday to guarantee the security of a Berlin opera house that pulled a production featuring the severed head of Muhammad, amid ongoing calls to stage the production as a sign of moral courage.

A leading member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party said he understood the decision by the director of the Deutsche Oper to cancel its previously scheduled fall performances of Mozart's "Idomeneo" after security officials determined that the 3-year-old production posed an "incalculable security risk."

But he joined Merkel and other members of her Cabinet in calling for the production to be staged.

"It is in the interest of the opera house, the company and all opera-goers to actively help create the necessary security" for the opera to be produced, Wolfgang Bosbach said.

The furor over the decision to cancel the opera is the latest in Europe involving Islamic sensitivities _ following cartoons of the prophet first published in a Danish newspaper and recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI decrying holy war.

The decision has been widely condemned as a threat to freedom of speech and the right of the arts to be provocative.

The opera's director, Kirsten Harms, has said she would reconsider her decision if appropriate security for her staff and the opera house could be guaranteed. She called for a public forum to be held Oct. 3.

Berlin's top security official, who warned Harms that security officials had analyzed a tip from an anonymous opera-goer and determined the production could pose a security risk, has since insisted police were up to the task.

"Of course Berlin security officials are capable of providing security for such a staging at the Deutsche Oper," Erhart Koerting said in a statement.

In the meantime, Berlin's longtime cultural rival, Vienna, has shown an interest in staging Hans Neuenfels' production, which features a scene in which King Idomeneo presents the severed heads not only of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, but also of Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha. The scene was part of Neuenfels' interpretation of the 225-year-old opera, as a statement against organized religion.

In a letter to the directors of Vienna's two opera houses and a musical theater, the Austrian capital's top cultural official asked whether they were interested in trying to put on the production.

"I believe that this development must be countered with a strong act of courage to stand up for one's beliefs, unless we want to surrender basic freedoms of our civilized democracy," Andreas Mailath-Pokorny wrote in the letter, made available to The Associated Press.

At a Berlin summit between German political and Muslim leaders this week, several leaders of Germany's Islamic community of about 3 million defended the right of freedom of expression in the arts.

Neuenfels' production premiered in 2003 at the Deutsche Oper and was last staged there in 2004. Since then, it has not been performed.

Harms has said she was not striking the production from her opera's repertoire, but felt that in the current, emotionally charged atmosphere it was not appropriate to put on at this time.

© 2006 The Associated Press