'Headless opera' puts police on alert - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

'Headless opera' puts police on alert

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Posted: Monday, December 18, 2006 3:26 am | Updated: 3:14 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

BERLIN - Audience members at Monday's Deutsche Oper production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" will be kindly asked to empty their pockets of all metal objects. And they should be prepared to leave - quickly - in case of a bomb alert.

The Austrian musical genius born 250 years ago was noted for an impish sense of humor and some directors take huge liberties with their interpretations of operas. But the security measures for the performance, which include electronic screening of opera goers and evacuation precautions, are not part of the plot.

It's a case of art meeting religious sensibility - and a decision that the show must go on, despite concerns that the production, featuring the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad, could prompt violence.

Mozart might wonder what the heads of Islam's founder, along with those of Jesus, Buddha and the Greek god of the seas, Poseidon, are doing in his opera. They are the brainchild of the director Hans Neuenfels, whose production first premiered three years ago. While some critics found the twist trite back then, it aroused little attention outside the opera world.

But that was before a Danish newspaper cartoon of Muhammad led to Muslim riots worldwide - and before comments by German-born Pope Benedict XVI further inflamed sensibilities in the Islamic world, just as the Neuenfels production was to be revived.

Such fears initially led the opera house to cancel plans to revive the production, but a city proud of its openness, tolerance and artistic verve was aghast.

While some Muslim leaders praised the decision, even Kenan Kolat, the leader of Germany's Turkish community, equated it with a step "back in the Middle Ages." Chancellor Angela Merkel warned against "self-censorship out of fear," and Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble - in charge of police - described it as "crazy."

So the show is back, though only after a last-minute scramble after the four props were either mislaid or stolen by pranksters. New ones were made.

Still, the performance comes with procedures that for some will make the experience more like clearing airport security than a night at the opera.

Staff are setting up electronic scanner gates at entrances, said opera spokesman Alexander Busche. A memo from Berlin police tells employees what to do in case of a bomb threat, and officers will be present in force - although low-key, so as not to intrude on what all hope will be nothing more than a musical and visual experience.

"We are ready for any eventuality," said police spokesman Berhard Schodrowski.

Kolat, the head of Germany's Turkish community, has said he plans to attend, as has Schaeuble, the interior minister. Ali Kizilkaya, head of Germany's Islamic Council, whose presence would have done much to defuse potential tensions, will not be there.

Instead of an opera where Muhammad and Christ are beheaded, "I ... would hope for a debate in society about whether everything should be allowed for the sake of art," he said, in indirect criticism of the decision to stage the production.

Another German Muslim leader, Aiman Mazyek, also said he would not attend, saying the purpose of opera was "not to mix religion, art and politics."

Also missing will be director Neuenfels, creator of the heads-scene and a talented but notorious "Problemkind" - problem-child - of the German cultural scene. But his absence is more a case of sending an artistic message and less of making a political statement.

Under present management, Deutsche Oper revivals of his productions "are crap," Neuenfels said. He has insisted his staging not be altered, saying the scene where the king of Crete presents the severed heads represents his protest against "any form of organized religion or its founders."

Despite such a scathing dismissal from its creator, the controversy has focused international interest on the production - a potentially welcome development for a house that competes for audience against two other opera companies in the German capital and is usually is no more than two-thirds full.

But tickets were still available just a few days before the performance.

"This is one of Mozart's less-known operas," said Busche of the relative lack of interest. As for the controversy around the severed heads, Berliners "are just not so into sensationalism."

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