The recent cancellation of performances of Mozart’s “Idomeneo in Berlin raised the very important question of our perception of the Muslim world, an issue which has not been addressed in any satisfactory way.
The production, which I have not seen and am therefore unable to comment upon, was temporarily removed from the German Opera’s repertoire this season because of elements in it which could offend or insult people, namely Muslims, who were in fact not even required to see it.
It is the duty of a government to protect its citizens from the threat of violence and terrorism. But is it the duty of a theatre to protect its audience from artistic expressions that might be interpreted as offensive?
The link between artistic expression and the associations it evokes is not unlike the link between substance and perception. Much too often we alter the substance to suit its perception. There is, of course, no way to determine the associations evoked by art, because it is an individual’s prerogative. In music, the difference between content and perception is provided by the printed page. In theatre or opera, where there is no score for the stage direction, it is the exclusive responsibility of the director.
The very essence of the role of theatre in society is its ability to remain in constant dialogue with reality regardless of its impact on real events. This form of dialogue is neither a sign of courage nor of cowardice, but must come of the inner necessity of an individual or an institution to express itself. Limiting one’s freedom of expression as a response to fear is as ineffective as imposing one’s point of view through military force.
Art is neither moral nor immoral, neither edifying nor offensive; it is our reaction to it that makes it one or the other in our minds. Our society sees controversy more and more as a negative attribute, yet difference of opinion and the difference between content and the perception of it lie at the very essence of creativity.
If content can be manipulated, perception can be doubly so. By censoring ourselves artistically out of fear of insulting a certain group of people, we not only limit rather than enlarge human thought in general but in fact insult the intelligence of a large group of Muslims and deprive them of the opportunity to demonstrate their maturity of thought.
This is the exact opposite of dialogue and a consequence of the inability to discern between the many different points of view existent in the vast Muslim world.
Art has nothing to do with a society that rejects what I would call publicly accepted standards of intelligence and takes the easy way out with political correctness, which is in fact not different in essence from fundamentalism in its various manifestations. Both political correctness and fundamentalism give answers not in order to further understanding, but in order to avoid questions. Acting out of fear does not appease the fundamentalists, who in any case have no intention of being appeased, and does not encourage the enlightened Muslims whose aim is progress and dialogue.
Instead, it isolates all Muslims, making out of them part of the problem rather than partners in search of a solution. By depriving our society of this essential dialogue we continue to alienate people whose peaceful cooperation is indispensable for a future without violence.
Maybe the Muslim world needs a modern equivalent of Spinoza who would be able to express the very nature of Islam in the same way that Spinoza expressed the very nature of the Judeo-Christian way of thought, at once remaining outside of it and even negating it.
The decision not to perform “Idomeneo was, finally, a decision not to differentiate between enlightened and extremist, between intellectual and dogmatic, between culturally interested and narrow-minded people of any origin or religion. The refusal to let this image be seen is precisely the fear that the violent elements of the Muslim world want us to have.
As I said above, I have not seen this production. I can only hope that Hans Neuenfels, the director of German Opera, found the display of the severed heads of Jesus, Muhammad and the Buddha an absolute inner necessity dictated by Mozart’s score. Maybe he should have allowed the severed heads to speak so that they could have pled for acknowledgment of the great wisdom and power of thought they collectively represent.Daniel Barenboim is a pianist and conductor. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration the Common Ground News Service.