Berlin’s Deutsche Oper provoked front-page headlines across the continent when it announced it was cancelling its production of “Idomeneo”, citing possible security threats because of a scene that might offend Muslims.
The controversy centred on a scene in which King Idomeneo is shown on stage with the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and the sea god Poseidon.
The original opera by Mozart makes no reference to Islam but Hans Neuenfel, the director, introduced the new scene which caused outrage at its premiere in 2003.
Flemming Rose, culture editor of Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten paper, which met a storm of Muslim protest after publishing satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad last year, said: “Here we go again. It’s like deja vu….This is exactly the kind of self-censorship I and my newspaper have been warning against.”
He said bowing to fears of a violent Muslim reaction would only worsen the problem: “You play into the hands of the radicals. You are telling them: your tactics are working. This is a victory for the radicals. It’s weakening the moderate Muslims who are our allies in this battle of ideas.”
Berlin security officials had warned that staging the opera “Idomeneo” would pose an “incalculable security risk”, although they said that no specific threats had been made.
The decision to cancel the production even before any protests had materialised was singled out for criticism.
Lisa Appignanesi, a novelist and deputy president of the writers’ group PEN in England, said: “To do it in advance of any actual protest I think invokes the next protest, because the radicals in any community are aided and abetted by that.
“We don’t want to end up in a situation where we don’t dare to speak up. What we do not want is a society where one is constantly fearful about what the people holding the bombs or the guns might say.”
The opera cancellation was the latest in a series of incidents in recent years where religious sensitivities and artistic expression have clashed.
In 2004, Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, was murdered after outraging some Muslims with a film accusing Islam of promoting violence against women, and a British play featuring sexual abuse and murder in a Sikh temple was cancelled after some Sikhs protested.
Last year London’s Tate Britain museum removed a sculpture by John Latham which it feared would offend Muslims and a British tour of “Jerry Springer – The Opera” was temporarily cancelled when conservative Christian groups complained.
Such tensions are not new, although artists argue they have become more common since September 11, 2001. In 1989 British author Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding after Iran called for his death after he wrote “The Satanic Verses”.
Appignanesi said: “You can’t be afraid of constantly watching your back in the arts.
“One is in the business of provoking response. Otherwise there is no art.”