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Self-censorship in major and minor

Harald Jähner more than regrets the decision by the Deutsche Oper to strike "Idomeneo" from its programme

Toward the end of Hans Neuenfels' version of Mozart's opera "Idomeneo", which has been shown at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin for the last three years, the hero presents the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus, Poseidon and well, yes, Muhammad. Kirsten Harms, director the opera house, has cancelled the production, which was scheduled to resume in November. The reason: after an anonymous phone call, Berlin's Criminal Investigation Office concluded the performance could represent "an incalculable security risk." There were no concrete threats, only one call by a frightened opera-goer to the Berlin police. At first, Harms wanted to let the production simply disappear from the repertoire. But then a wave of outrage came down on her. Reactions to the "Idomeneo" cancellation here.

German culture is known for its state-subsidised courage. Nowhere else does so much stage blood flow as in our theatres. Litres of the stuff are poured over people's heads. There's naked shitting, masturbation and ejaculation and when it's not clear how to get a few horrified audience members to leave the theatre, a cross is erected next to the orgy so that at least the local bishop will be asked by his parish to draft a letter of protest. Then the collective intellectual forces of the republic rally in defence of artistic freedom and give the poor bishop a proper scare.

It is in this way that a routine little battle is fought every few months � against the pub talk, as one says, and for art. These provocations belong to the rituals of freedom of which this country, sixty years after the end of fascism, is proud in a particularly unsure, self-tortured and heedless way.

The Deutsche Oper demonstrates very nicely how little courage the de-sensitised public can summon for such scandals: none, to be precise. As soon as there's even a vague notion that an audience that could respond differently, that it might take offence to the action on stage, the performance gets struck from the programme. In response to the assessment by Berlin's Criminal Investigation Office that the three-year-old Neuenfels production might offend pious Muslims and could lead to reprisals, the director of the opera house, Kirsten Harms, censored herself and cancelled the performance.

This is dangerous and misguided for many reasons. First, the anticipatory obedience of the opera house director will make potential terrorists aware of what was to be seen in her house since its premiere in March of 2003: Idomeneo presenting, alongside those of Poseidon, Jesus and Buddha, the hacked-off head of Muhammad. The audience and staff of the Deutsche Oper will be far more endangered by this sudden pronouncement than they would have been by the piece itself, which thus far had not raised the ire of a single Muslim.

The director's scaredy-pantedness is furthermore dangerous because it represents a huge victory for the tiny minority of Muslims for whom terror is a legitimate means of political response. And that's precisely what terror wants to create: an atmosphere of horror in which every attack is multiplied in its potentiality. Within the realm of the possible, terror surfaces quickly in the every-day and influences our behaviour, even before a shot has been fired, a hand raised or a threat spoken. The worst accusation that one must make of the opera house director is that she has strengthened the terrorists' sense of power.

The sensitivity of many Muslims with respect to the Prophet and insults against him has unsettled our understanding of artistic freedom. There's an upside to that: the unsettledness has lead to a heightening. The debate on the Muhammad caricatures didn't only frighten Western artists, it also made them more aware of the effectiveness of art than they had been for a long time. What unholy fury art can release in societies that have yet to dissociate art from seriousness! For this and other reasons, cultural respect of religious feelings has grown markedly. In the midst of modern society, art accrues religion - Christianity included - as a kind of forgotten relative, viewing it with scepticism, new-found respect or animosity. Neuenfels' four-fold critique of religion must be understood in this context.

But truly disastrous is a form of respect that stems not from our discomfort with our own modernity but from the possibility of anger. Kenan Kolat, National Chairman of the Turkish Community, says that first and foremost, art must be free. Kerstin Harms does harm to the many Muslims who are fighting censorship in their own countries. They too have to learn that freedom occasionally palls.


The article originally appeared in German
in the Berliner Zeitung on September 27, 2006. More reactions to the "Idomeneo" cancellation here.

Harald Jähner is feuilleton editor of the Berliner Zeitung.

Translation: nb

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