A leading German opera house has canceled performances of a Mozart opera because of security fears stirred by a scene that depicts the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad, prompting a storm of protest here about the renunciation of artistic freedom.
The Deutsche Oper in Berlin said it had pulled "Idomeneo" from its fall schedule after the police warned that the staging of the opera could pose an "incalculable risk" to the performers and the audience.
The Deutsche Oper's director, Kirsten Harms, said she regretted the decision but felt she had no choice because she was "responsible for all the people on the stage, behind the stage and in front of the stage."
Political and cultural figures throughout Germany condemned the cancellation, which is without precedent here. Some said it recalled the decision of European newspapers not to print satirical cartoons about Muhammad, after their publication in Denmark generated a furor among Muslims.
The decision seemed likely to fan a debate in Germany, and perhaps elsewhere in Europe, about whether the West was compromising its values, including free expression, to avoid stoking anger in the Muslim world....
What debate? Isn't this exactly what's happening here?
I should note that the opera is not quite rejecting Mozart as such: "The disputed scene is not part of Mozart's 225-year-old opera, but was added as a sort of coda by the director, Hans Neuenfels. In it, the king of Crete, Idomeneo, carries the heads of Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon, god of the sea, onto the stage, placing each on a stool.... 'The severed heads of the religious figures ... was meant by Neuenfels to make a point that "all the founders of religions were figures that didn't bring peace to the world."'"
But what they're doing is plenty bad enough -- they're surrendering their own artistic freedom by caving in to the fear of violence, and thus encouraging more threats of violence and more suppression of artistic freedom in the future.
Yes, I sympathize with organizations that feel the obligation to protect themselves and their viewers. But on balance such surrender, especially highly anticipatory surrender ("[t]his past summer, the Berlin police said they received a call from an unidentified person, who warned that the opera was 'damaging to religious feelings'[; t]he caller did not make a specific threat against the opera"), is both a disaster for artistic and political freedom, and I suspect encourages more violence than it avoids. Institutions that rely on this freedom need to be willing to run some risks to preserve it.
Finally, I think it's important that the change seems to be overtly motivated by fear of violence, rather than by genuine desire to avoid offending prospective viewers, or to avoid associating with what the organization sees as reprehensible ideas. The latter two justifications are aspects of one's artistic freedom: Artistic freedom includes the freedom to choose the art that one considers most worthy, and (generally speaking) that will attract viewers rather than repelling them. But the fear-of-violence justification is a surrender of that freedom.
Related Posts (on one page):
- We Are All Danes Now, Latest Installment:
- Canada's Largest Retail Bookstore Bows To Fear of Anti-Cartoon Demonstrations,
- "Racist" Cartoons:
- It Appears Borders Is Carrying the Harper's Issue
- Harper's Magazine Apparently Publishing the Mohammed Cartoons,
- Free Speech and Tort Lawsuits Over Attacks on Bookstores:
- Fear of Extremist Muslim Violence Suppresses Speech in the U.S.: