It’s all over if the fat lady doesn’t sing

The ball of self-censorship has started to roll. The Berlin Opera has cancelled a run of Mozart’s Idomeneo.

The problem is that, along with the heads of Poseidon, Jesus and Buddha, the head of Mohammed is also depicted.

So, after a warning from the security officials that the 200 year old opera “could provoke dangerous reactions” and pose a threat to the safety of opera goers (and presumably others), Kirsten Harms, director of Berlin’s Deutsche Opera decided to pull the plug on the production. German politicians are not happy.

According to Reuters, Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, rightly says, “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.”

And, according to the International Herald Tribune, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Wednesday that “self-censorship out of fear” would not be tolerated.

“This is about art, not about politics. “We should not make art dependent on religion — then we are back in the Middle Ages.” said Kenan Kolat, a leader of Germany’s Turkish Community, adding that it was time Muslims accepted freedom of expression in art.

Strong words all round, but will we have the courage of our convictions to stand behind them? I predict that the rationalisation that an opera (or a book, or a poem, or a painting, or a photograph, or a play or a film or a TV programme) isn’t worth the life of a nun will gain currency. Of course, that’s exactly right: very little is worth trading for a human life. But it’s a false dilema.

By failing to assert the right to free expression in a free country, we’re bargaining away a lot more than the life of a nun… or a director, or a tourist, or whoever else’s blood Islamists decide must be spilt in retribution for free thought and free expression.

Gene adds: It appears the show will go on, severed heads and all.

Wolfgang Schäuble, interior minister and the country’s top security official, said on Wednesday that 30 government and Muslim representatives, meeting in Berlin to launch a three-year dialogue forum, had “spoken out unanimously” that the opera should be performed as scheduled in November.

Deutsche Oper and Berlin city officials said on Wednesday night that efforts were under way to ensure the opera, already shown dozens of times in Berlin since 2003, returned to the stage.

Mr Schäuble, appearing to overrule Berlin police, insisted that “there was never a direct threat of violence” against the opera, but acknowledged that security forces had acted in good faith in responding to an undefined “heightened sense of danger” surrounding the 200-year-old work.

(Hat tip: Robert Hale in the comments.)