BERLIN — A leading opera house canceled a 3-year-old production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” that includes 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 a 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 added in Mr. Neuenfels’ production, which was last performed by the company in March 2004.
Though 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 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 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.”
The decision comes after German-born Pope Benedict XVI infuriated Muslims by quoting the words of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of 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 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.