The recent controversy over the decision of the Berlin Opera House to withdraw a production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” — the ending of which featured the severed head of Mohammed, among others — is a case in point. Muslims had not yet become offended. No one had rioted. No cars or flags were burned. No one torched any German embassies.
Still, Deutschen Oper felt compelled to surrender pre-emptively to the anger and violence of Islam, and cancelled all the performances of the opera.
The big surprise is that the German public didn’t like this craven behavior. Below is a translation of part of an editorial from last week’s Die Welt (I ran into so many mysterious idioms in the last paragraph and a half that I couldn’t finish the job):
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German society is stronger than one thinks
Broadly and across all political camps there is indignation among the citizens of Berlin because of the Mozart kerfuffle. That’s a hopeful sign. Our democratic instinct and cultural self-confidence have been sharpened by the debate surrounding Islam.
By Eckhard Fuhr
Alexander Kluge spoke of the art form of the opera as a “powerhouse of feelings”. The effect on the audience is, above all, emotional. And opera often depicts the power which feelings and passions have over human understanding and the social order. As an expensive cultural institution, the opera also evokes feelings, not always positive, particularly with local politicians. It is, however, a novel experience when opera suddenly becomes the focus of a liberal society’s self-understanding about what is essential, and a hotbed of democratic emotions. In Berlin this is exactly what is happening.
Once again it is confirmed that history moves forward in dialectical leaps. It all began with fear and cowardice. Because of vague references to the possible hurt feelings of Muslims and the resulting security risks, Kirsten Harms, the Director of Deutschen Oper, pulled Hans Neuenfels’ production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” from the fall season. In November, the 2003 version of the production would have been taken up again. The Director surely did not make decision lightly, weighing artistic freedom against the security of the public and the employees. It is a safe bet that she didn’t reckon on the firestorm of indignation ignited by her decision, made with a heavy heart, in favor of their security.
The political class and cultural public reacted as one, which vitiated all her strategies of pain-avoidance. She shouted and took them to task. No trace of diplomatic restraint in the choice of words in her statements, no retreat clauses: “crazy”, “nonsensical”, “intolerable”, thus no longer discussable — such judgments arose from the rush to obedience and the self-censorship of the Director.
Politicians of all parties, artists, cultural functionaries and spin doctors were seen in a rare shoulder-to-shoulder stance. Some found that quite sinister and attributed it to the dynamics of a positive feedback loop, from which no one could extract himself. But even if that describes the applicable social-psychological mechanism, nevertheless the cause of the excitation does not remain indifferent: The point of pain, Frau Harms — the Good Fairy in White, who wanted to avoid all unintended excitement — is that the liberal minimum, which finds a simultaneous material and symbolic expression in artistic freedom, is not negotiable. Artistic freedom exists for its own sake and not as vehicle for secondary purposes.
For this minimum and its dangers there is obviously a well-trained instinct in the German public. While debates about this question under the references “cultural leadership” or “intercultural dialogue” or “reason and religion” or “values” often lead into the fog of the approximate or into the disinfected sanitary area of the banal, the democratic instinct cannot be lured there. In addition, one feels that if much noise is not made, then without any bad intentions liberty is betrayed quietly, and surely completely.
One should take the controversy, which one can experience now in Berlin, as a chance to think once about whether our German and European self-image is not darker than the reality. Our cultural self-confidence, it seems, looks paradoxically to be stronger than we ourselves often believe. We are faced with all our relativism and rationalism, with our self-doubts and our doddering religious unbelief, and must pull ourselves together, or the faith-strong followers of Mohammed will prevail permanently.
Hat tip: Reader C.A.
My knowledge of German is minimal; I did my translation with the help of babelfish, a German-English dictionary, my knowledge of Common Germanic etymology, and some educated guesswork. Fluent speakers of German are welcome to correct me where I have strayed from a reasonable translation of the original.