Idomeneo in Berlin

A drama unto itself.

LA Times

December 2006

Remember the scandal over “Idomeneo” in Berlin? Remember how Islamists went mad when the Deutsche Oper decided to stage a controversial production of Mozart’s opera, unleashing a storm of violence? Remember how there was rioting in the streets of the German capital, how Al Jazeera denounced Mozart (the Mozart!) as a “decadent purveyor of Orientalist trash,” how Der Spiegel conceded that all artistic expression in Europe should henceforth be subject to Sharia law?

Remember how none of these things happened?

On Monday, three months after the Deutsche Oper sparked a windy discussion of artistic freedom by announcing that it was canceling a staging of “Idomeneo” — one that involved beheading Jesus and Muhammad — Mozart’s opera finally played. No bombs went off, nobody rioted and the only injury may have been to the director’s ego, as opera lovers gave a Bronx cheer to his (mis)calculated artistic outrages.

I sat next to a tall German with a rough, white beard that resolved into a curling mustache. He wore a bow tie and called himself Herr Harms, no relation to Kirsten Harms, the Deutsche Oper’s embattled manager, who’d been criticized around the world for trying to cancel the production. Thanks to that controversial move, every member of the audience knew the show would end with the severed heads of Jesus, Muhammad, Poseidon and Buddha sitting gorily on chairs, hacked off by King Idomeneo in symbolic sacrifice to human free will.

The plot is a Greek version of the Abraham and Isaac story, about a king ordered by Poseidon to sacrifice his son. The director, Hans Neuenfels, added the scene to his production (first performed in 2003) in a crude attempt to tweak the opera’s pious message about divine will. In its pure form, the opera never mentions Muhammad and involves no severed heads; but on Monday, we all showed up to see the sensational bastard version. Herr Harms was skeptical.

“I live around the corner, and I come to the opera whenever they put on something good,” he said. “The productions can be rather abstruse, but they attract excellent singers.”

Was he afraid of dying in a terrorist attack?


Neither was anyone else. For all the security measures — metal detectors, police vans, 100 green-uniformed cops — no terrorist threat has ever been recorded against the Deutsche Oper for this “Idomeneo.” In September, Kirsten Harms quietly took the Neuenfels revival off the schedule when terrorism officials in Berlin told her that they couldn’t “guarantee” the opera’s safety.

The cancellation became a platform for grandstanders. Interior Minister Wolfgang Wolfgang Schaeuble (in charge of national security) said Harms’ decision was “crazy” and “unacceptable.” The only trouble with his position was that Berlin officials under his own command had made the warning in the first place.

So the opera was reinstated. Schaeuble and other politicians turned up to be seen by TV cameras. Exactly two protesters bothered to stand on the street, both Christian. Horst Stutz, with a sign reading, “Freedom of Speech or Jesus Christ,” argued that Christ had already sacrificed himself for men’s sins, so how could he be sacrificed by an opera character in the name of human free will? “It’s absurd,” he said.

The show was absurd, everyone agreed, but for different reasons. Germans filled the auditorium to support free speech and condemn Neuenfels. His cartoonish vision of “Idomeneo” — with Poseidon wearing a stuffed sturgeon over one shoulder, and mangled Trojan prisoners of war staggering out of a cargo crate — was all too easy to loathe. “A sweet bonbon,” said Herr Harms with a tolerant smile. “But the singing is good.”

In the end, there were no explosions, no gunshots and no flying tomatoes or eggs, nothing worse than a man shouting “Stop!” from the mezzanine as Idomeneo pulled the bloody heads from a bag. Another man hollered “Continue!” and then there were alternating shouts of “Bravo!” and “Boo!”

The Deutsche Oper was packed. (The house sold all but 100 seats.) But the whole point of the evening was a scene reviled by most of the audience. What we all thought of as kitsch had become indispensable. I wished Neuenfels had changed the scene to surprise us with some fresh outrage, but for the journalists and politicians, and for the opera itself, mounting the show as advertised was enough to make a world-resonating statement about free speech and Islamic terror. Which is odd, because the whole controversy, from the self-censorship uproar to the hordes of useless police, was a drama with no conspicuous villain.

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Michael Scott Moore is a journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist. He’s won Fulbright, Logan, and Pulitzer Center grants for his nonfiction, as well as a Silver Nautilus Award in Journalism and Investigative Reporting; and Yaddo, MacDowell, and DeWitt Wallace–Reader’s Digest fellowships for his fiction.

He’s been a visiting professor at the Columbia School of the Arts and UC Riverside. He worked for several years as an editor and writer at Spiegel Online in Berlin. Michael was kidnapped in early 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage by pirates for 32 months. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, became an international bestseller.

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