BERLIN – A leading opera house canceled a 3-year-old production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" that included a scene showing the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad, unleashing a furious debate over free speech.
In a statement late Monday, the Deutsche Oper said it decided "with great regret" to cancel the production after Berlin security officials warned of an "incalculable risk" because of the scene.
After its premiere in 2003, the production by Hans Neuenfels drew widespread criticism over the scene in which King Idomeneo presents the severed heads not only of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, but also of Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha. The disputed scene is not part of Mozart's original staging of the 225-year-old opera, but was an addition of Neuenfels' production, which was last performed by the company in March 2004.
"We know the consequences of the conflict over the (Muhammad) caricatures," Deutsche Oper said its statement announcing the decision. "We believe that needs to be taken very seriously and hope for your support."
On Tuesday, Deutsche Oper director Kirsten Harms said security officials had recommended, but not ordered, that she either cut the scene or pull the entire production from the 2006-2007 lineup.
"The State Criminal Office assessed the situation and came to the conclusion that if the Deutsche Oper stages this version of Idomeneo in its originally produced form, it will pose an incalculable security risk to the public and employees," Harms told reporters.
"If I were to ignore this and say, 'We are going to stage this nevertheless, or because of this,' and something were to happen, then everyone would say, and would be right to say: 'She ignored the warning of security officials,"' Harms said.
She said she spoke at length with Neuenfels — who insisted his staging not be altered — as well as the orchestra director and others involved in the production before making her decision.
While some expressed understanding for the decision, many were outraged.
"That is crazy," Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told reporters in Washington, where he was holding meetings with U.S. officials. "This is unacceptable."
The leader of Germany's Islamic Council welcomed the decision, saying a depiction of Muhammad with a severed head "could certainly offend Muslims."
"Nevertheless, of course I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid," Ali Kizilkaya told Berlin's Radio Multikulti. "That is not the right way to open dialogue."
Berlin Police Chief Dieter Glietsch said on rbb radio that "one can find nothing wrong if, in a climate that's already tense between Islam and the Western world, people avoid heating up the situation further through a scene that can — and perhaps even must — be taken as provocative by pious Muslims."
Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, however, said that "with all understanding for the concern about the security of spectators and performers, I consider the decision of the director to be wrong.
"Our ideas about openness, tolerance and freedom must be lived on the offensive. Voluntary self-limitation gives those who fight against our values a confirmation in advance that we will not stand behind them."
Bernd Neumann, the federal government's top cultural official, said that "problems cannot be solved by keeping silent."
"When the concern over possible protests leads to self-censorship, then the democratic culture of free speech becomes endangered."
The decision comes after the German-born Pope Benedict XVI infuriated Muslims by quoting the words of a 14th century Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."
Earlier this year, furious protests erupted after a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Those caricatures were then reprinted by dozens of newspapers and Web sites in Europe and elsewhere, often in the name of freedom of expression.
Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depiction of Muhammad for fear it could lead to idolatry.
The leader of Germany's Turkish Community said that while he could understand how the production could be seen as offensive, he also encouraged Muslims living in the West to accept certain elements of the traditions here, noting an opera production is not equivalent to a political point of view.
"I would recommend Muslims learn to accept certain things," Kenan Kolat told the online Netzeitung newspaper. "Art must remain free."