In German Opera, Heads Come Off Without Incident

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

BERLIN, Dec. 18 -- Just before the curtain dropped on an otherwise uneventful opera, the grisly scene that everyone came to see finally transpired. The King of Crete pulled the severed head of the prophet Muhammad out of a sack and triumphantly placed it on a wooden chair, next to three decapitated deities.

A few loud shouts of "Jawohl!" or "That's right!" erupted from the audience, along with some scattered jeering, as the long-delayed production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" came to a conclusion. Dozens of security men wearing earpieces scanned the crowd for trouble. But much to the relief of the anxious German authorities, no physical violence or terrorist threats were reported. Nor did any organized protests occur outside.

Yet the controversy over the once-obscure remake of "Idomeneo" showed few signs of subsiding. German politicians, religious leaders and others continued to bicker about the broader meaning of the production, the latest symbol in a debate over whether European society and millions of Muslim newcomers to the continent are socially compatible.

Did the opera -- three months after it was canceled because of vague fears that it might inspire violence by offended Muslims -- represent the triumph of artistic freedom over religious intolerance? Or was it just an over-hyped case of bad taste being forced on the German public?

Many members of Berlin's ruling elite braved the metal detectors and extra security deployed by the Deutsche Oper to attend the Monday night premiere of "Idomeneo," saying they wanted to make a public showing in favor of free speech and democratic values. The mayor of Berlin was there, as well as Germany's culture minister and interior minister and religious leaders of several persuasions.

"We should make a common stand," said another dignitary in the audience, Kenan Kolat, leader of a national association representing Germany's 3 million residents of Turkish descent. All together, about 1,800 people attended, not quite a full house.

Attracting just as much attention were the no-shows, including two Muslim leaders who had declined personal invitations to attend from Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

Ali Kizilkaya, chairman of the 150,000-member German Islamic Council, said he favored free speech but had no interest in seeing an opera that he found personally offensive. "This is a particularly tasteless and bloody opera," he said. "My prophet is decapitated in this opera. That is not something that I need to watch."

Aiman Mazyek, secretary general of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, another national organization, also turned down an official invitation, saying the opera had become politicized.

A spokesman for the council, Mounir Azzaoui, pointed out that Muslims had never organized protests against the opera or called for its cancellation in the first place. Nor should they feel obliged to support it, he said.

"The call to cancel the opera did not come from Muslims, it came from politicians," he said. "It set off a feigned debate that freedom of speech was in danger, as if the Muslims were out to threaten freedom of speech in Germany."

"Idomeneo" was canceled in September when the Deutsche Oper -- one of three opera houses in Berlin -- announced that it had received warnings from police that it could be a security risk.

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