I guess that the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s decision to cancel a production of Mozart’s opera “Idomeneo” because of fear of Muslim riots is the blow to artistic freedom that all my friends say it is (see Little Green Footballs’s “European Spine Watch“). And I’m usually the first one on my block to become empurpled with rage at craven capitulations by the supposedly tolerant West to the delicate and easily inflamed sensibilities of radical Islam.
Still (and sorry, Angela Merkel!), I’ve got to point out that we’re not talking about self-censorship of a Mozart opera. We’re talking about self-censorship of a dumb and gratuitous scene added to a Mozart opera by a politically correct and militantly secularist director who decided to “update” Mozart’s musical version of the Trojan War by throwing in an episode featuring the severed heads, not only of Muhammad but of Jesus, Buddha, and the Greek god Poseidon as well. (Naturally the insult to Christians and Buddhists is all in the name of good, irreverent fun–and I haven’t yet noticed any fears expressed of threatened Christian or Buddhist reprisals. Nor of threatened reprisals by Poseidon-worshippers, although there aren’t many of those around these days.)
You may wonder, since the Trojan War supposedly took place 600 years before the birth of Buddha, 1200 years before the birth of Jesus, and 1800 years before the birth of Muhammad, what on earth this scene has to do with Mozart’s opera. So do I. But from what I’ve read, the opera’s director Hans Neuenfels, decided that the scene would be a good way to dramatize how evil and bloodthirsty religion is, so he threw it in. The Deutsche Oper’s production is the latest in a long, tiresome, seemingly endless line of productions of classic plays and operas that have been turned by their directors into heavy-handed allegories about, say, the Bush administration, Hitler, or both. Last fall in London, for example, I attended a production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” that portrayed the characters as escapees from the Nazis–a concept that milked all the delight and subtlety out of this lovely comedy. But my alternative was to witness a production of “Richard II” set in the Bush White House. I picked the Nazis.
If you look at the photos of the Deutsche Oper’s production of “Idomeneo,” you’ll see the same tiresome tropes that wrecked “As You Like It” for me: the bare stage, the obligatory modern dress (Trojan warriors in suits and ties? C’mon!), the religious figures turned into ghastly caricatures (Muhammad carrying a pitchfork, a corpulent, epicene Jesus). I think that director Neuenfels is trying to work in some point about the Iraq war, that “devil” (to quote our friend Hugo Chavez) Bush, and so forth.
The opera “Idomeneo” that Mozart wrote (at age 24) is actually an upbeat, if convolutedly and unconvincingly plotted, romance. It features Ilia, daughter of King Priam of Troy, who’s hopelessly in love (and loved by) Idamante, son of Priam’s enemy King Idomeneo of Crete. Somehow Idomeneo gets stuck in a promise to sacrifice Idamante to the god Neptune (that was the Latin name for Poseidon), Ilia offers her own life in her sweetheart’s place, and Neptune decides that neither will have to be killed as long as Idomeneo relinquishes his throne to his son. So it’s tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight, and the opera ends with a happy wedding and new rulers for Crete.
How we get from this to the Iraq war and the evils of organized religion is beyond me. So frankly, I’m not at all sorry to see Neuenfels’s ponderous political interpretation of Mozart’s opera bite the dust (although now there seems to be some talk of going ahead with it after all). Yes, I’m all for artistic freedom–but what about the freedom to ditch god-awful ideas that wreck the artistry of a classic work? I’m saving my ire for when they cancel a production of Mozart’s “Abduction From the Seraglio,” which is actually about Islamic tyranny and western freedom.