When Operas Attack

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entertainment and popular culture

The German Opera of Berlin (Deutsche Oper Berlin) has pulled a production of Mozart’s Idomeneo from its fall schedule on the advice of police. The production had included a scene featuring the severed heads of Mohammed, Jesus, and the Buddha, and the police worried that Muslims might get violent about it.

If you are familiar with Idomeneo you might wonder how Mohammed, Jesus, and the Buddha wandered into it, since those illustrious figures are not in the libretto. The New York Times has a photograph of a rehearsal — the chorus is dressed in black suits and “blues brothers” porkpie hats. (This is what passes for creativity in opera; take a story based on Greek myth and dress everybody up in the wrong costumes.) I assume the green guy is Neptune, who is in the libretto, and the woman dressed in the black suit (but no hat) is probably a mezzo-soprano playing the role of Idamante, son of Idomeneo, King of Crete. The role was written for a castrato, who are hard to come by these days, and so opera companies usually settle for a mezzo. An occasional tenor will take on the role, but I suspect the vocal range the part requires is not comfortable for most tenors.

In this opera Idomeneo is supposed to sacrifice Idamante to Neptune, but (after about three hours of other stuff) at the end an Oracle says Idomeneo doesn’t have to sacrifice Idamante and everybody lives happily ever after. I wonder if the production in question has a new scene in which Idomeneo sacrificed Mohammed et al. to placate Neptune. As I said, it’s not in the libretto, and it doesn’t actually make sense within the plot, but what the hey.

Today there’s some grumbling on the blogosphere about “political correctness” and how “artistic freedom” is being sacrificed to placate Muslims. To which I say, try performing this critter in the Bible Belt. As soon as the Holy Rollers hear about Jesus’s severed head the opera house is as good as vandalized, if not torched. And every Mozart CD in Alabama — all six of ’em — would be tossed on a bonfire, along with video cassettes and DVDs of “Amadeus.”

For that matter, Madonna recently risked arrest in Germany by performing some techno pop song while suspended crucifixion-style on a mirrored cross, wearing a crown of thorns. In The Netherlands, a priest called in a bomb threat in an attempt to stop the show, and some Russian Orthodox priests declared a “Holy Inquisition” against Madonna and other slanderers of holy imagery. Other Russian believers speared a poster of Madonna — sounds hostile to me.

Get this

The German authorities will make up their own minds on the crucifixion matter this weekend and also on whether the giant screen, which flashes images ranging from the pope, Osama Bin Laden, US President George W. Bush, Chinese leader Mao Zedong to Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, is in bad taste.

Somebody tell the righties that Madonna compared Bush to Bin Laden, Mao, and Mussolini while touring Europe, then watch Madonna get Dixie Chicked.

Certainly it’s wrong to stand in the way of artistic and political expression, but it doesn’t seem to bother the Right unless the ones standing in the way are Muslim.

But what I want to know is — if this Idomeneo production is supposed to be so creative, why bother making Neptune look like Neptune? I would have put Neptune in a red sequined gown and feather boa and have him sing his role while perched on top of a grand piano. Even better, make him a Judy Garland impersonator. That would have been creative.

Update: La Lulu goes on about how those awful Muslims hate everything without noticing that it wasn’t Muslims who cancelled the production, but the opera company, on advice from police who feared the production might incite violence. Also, the Times story linked above says that when the production was first performed, “it aroused controversy among Muslims and Christians.”

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11 Comments

  1. John Roberts  •  Sep 27, 2006 @12:19 pm

    “good as vandalized, if not torched”

    What an astute comment, except for being totally made-up.

    “watch Madonna get Dixie-Chicked”

    Wait, you mean that the people she insults and calls morons will decide to stop buying her music? How can this be allowed in America?!

  2. maha  •  Sep 27, 2006 @1:00 pm

    What an astute comment, except for being totally made-up.

    Certainly it’s speculation, since that production has never been presented in America, but I grew up in the Bible Belt. I know my people. Remember what they did to John Lennon after the “bigger than Jesus” remark? Oh, wait, you’re probably too young. Sorry.

    Wait, you mean that the people she insults and calls morons will decide to stop buying her music?

    Now who’s making stuff up? What Natalie Maines said was “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” The boycott was organized by Free Republic and supported by several radio stations. This organized effort, which included death threats, was an attempt to destroy their careers because one of them dared express a political opinion.

  3. John Roberts  •  Sep 27, 2006 @1:56 pm

    Please don’t say that Mark Chapman was part of the bible belt, you unforgivably silly person.

    I found your site from here, BTW:
    http://timblair.net/ee/index.php/weblog/list_updated/

  4. Elayne Riggs  •  Sep 27, 2006 @2:11 pm

    See, when Jude mentioned this in her blog, I assumed it was just another pretentious German pratt (in this case Hans Neuenfels) inserting stuff that didn’t belong in the opera in the first place, and nothing you’ve said disabuses me of that notion, so why should anyone besides him adn his little clique be pissed about his pretentious scenes being taken out?

  5. maha  •  Sep 27, 2006 @2:47 pm

    Please don’t say that Mark Chapman was part of the bible belt, you unforgivably silly person.

    Oh, for pity’s sake, of course not. The incident to which I referred happened several years earlier; about 1966. John Lennon made some offhand remark about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus, and it touched off everything short of riots. People all over the Bible Belt held anti-Beatle demonstrations that featured the burning of record albums in large and probably toxic bonfires.

    Jeez, what a maroon …

  6. maha  •  Sep 27, 2006 @2:51 pm

    Elayne — That’s not how opera (or Shakespeare, or anything people like to produce in new ways) works. Like it or not, the production (separate from the original score and libretto) is an original artistic expression. Taking out one scene is still censorship and possibly damaging to the production as a whole. You’re probably right that the production is a lot of pretentious hoohaw, and I wouldn’t bother to see it, but it’s still expression.

  7. Josh in Berlin  •  Sep 28, 2006 @10:11 am

    It seems that the cancellation will be revoked and this opera will be shown after all. What a great and shrewd publicity stunt the opera house made by first announcing the cancellation. Usually hardly anybody would be interested in that opera, but now it is the talk of the town.

    I think I am in a very small minority in Germany who approved of the cancellation. That opera is an insult to other religions (since it shows the severed heads of Jesus and Buddha as well) and to Mozart, the composer, himself.

    What benefit would we get if we had this opera? It seems the only reason to defend this stupid opera is to avoid giving the impression of appeasement to the Islamofascists. That’s not enough for me. I think this opera would only strengthen Islamofasicsm since it would help their propaganda. To win the war on terrorism, we need to have moderate Muslims on our side, so that they don’t support the terrorists, but give us information about them. And we want the moderate Muslims to win over their autocratic governments and fundamentalist groups in the Arab world. This opera, however, alienates the moderate Muslims and helps the fundamentalists.

    Let’s not forget that theater plays critical of Christians and Israel also get canceled. Earlier this year:
    “A New York theatre company has put off plans to stage a play about an American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza because of the current “political climate” – a decision the play’s British director, Alan Rickman, denounced as “censorship”.”
    http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/theatre-gets-stagefright-over-play-on-israeli-death-of-activist/2006/02/28/1141095740986.html

    I am not a fan of Rachel Corrie. Not at all. However, if one criticizes the canellation of the Mozart opera for fear of offending Muslimes, then one should also criticize the canceling of that play for fear of offending supporters of Israel..

    Besides:
    “On May 23, 1998, the New York Times announced that the Manhattan Theatre Club would be canceling its scheduled production of playwright Terrence McNally’s newest play, Corpus Christi, due to bomb and death threats made against the theatre, its personnel, and the playwright. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights disavowed responsibility for the threats but did publicly applaud the decision, calling the play “blasphemous.””
    http://muse.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/access.cgi?uri=/journals/theatre_journal/v051/51.2pr_mcnally.html

    When Corpus Christi was shown in Germany in 2000, there have been death threats and bomb threats as well:
    http://www.cityinfonetz.de/tagblatt/thema/thema39/

    Thus it could very well be that the threats against the “Idomeneo” opera are not only coming from Muslims, but from Christians, who don’t like to see the severed head of Jesus… Having said that: The concern about attacks from Muslims is bigger.

    Greetings from Berlin,
    My blog: The Atlantic Review, A press digest on transatlantic affairs edited by three German Fulbright Alumni

  8. maha  •  Sep 28, 2006 @12:35 pm

    Josh — I had forgotten the Corpus Christi episode. Thanks for bringing that up.

    American conservative Christians have a long history of trying to get things banned that they think insults Chritianity. They went on a regular rampage over the film “Last Temptation of Christ”; it wasn’t shown in large parts of the country. They are still simmering in rage because some “artist” photographed a little statue of a crucified Christ submerged in urine more than 20 years ago.

  9. Joerg  •  Sep 28, 2006 @3:01 pm

    Well, you know, for all the noise some people make about stuff like Madonna’s in Germany, most people actually don’t give a shit (I mean who takes Madonna seriously?), and – of course – authorities will pretend they look into it and find nothing wrong with it. As for whether any of that stuff – Madonna or opera or whatever else – is good taste is an entirely different matter – and you can’t get arrested for having bad taste (neither here nor there). In any case, to compare Madonna’s calculated insult (comparable to the kinds of “scandals” the Rolling Stones have been up to to generate publicity) with what happened to the Dixie Chicks here displays a certain amount of ignorance about Germany. Quite unlike in the US, where people actually destroy people’s CD in public, stuff like that isn’t done in Germany any longer, because, you know, a) it’s bad taste and b) it just looks too suspiciously like what the Nazis did.

  10. maha  •  Sep 28, 2006 @3:49 pm

    In any case, to compare Madonna’s calculated insult (comparable to the kinds of “scandals” the Rolling Stones have been up to to generate publicity) with what happened to the Dixie Chicks here displays a certain amount of ignorance about Germany.

    I wasn’t comparing “Madonna’s calculated insult” in Germany to what happened to the Dixie Chicks. I was saying that if it had become widely publicized in the U.S. that Madonna was lumping Bush together with Mao et al., she might have been Dixie Chicked in the U.S. The only reason she wasn’t, IMO, is that the details of Madonna’s tour weren’t that well publicized. I only knew about the cross and thorn thing.

  11. Michael  •  Sep 28, 2006 @7:56 pm

    Maha said that if people in the States found out about Madonna’s calculated insults, *they* (in the States, not in Germany) would Dixie-Chick her. Not that Germans would.

    The whole point is that the morons in the States act like Nazis, and that Germans have learned that lesson, thus don’t.

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