A Night at the Opera

Watching Idomeneo in Berlin.

The final scene of the Deutsche Oper’s Idomeneo

BERLIN—In the first half, the chorus wore stylized mock Baroque, coordinated to match their hot pink, lime green, and fluorescent orange bouffant wigs. In the second half, Electra crawled into a tiny model of the Parthenon and had a kind of epileptic seizure (as, later, did several other characters, though most recovered). One of the sets featured a series of black doors, which King Idomeneo, dressed in the garb of an Italian playboy, opened and closed as he sang. Another set featured scaffolding, upon which stood the “gods.” Among them were Jesus, in a white cassock and floaty hair; Buddha, entirely painted gold, with prayer beads in hand; and a somewhat anorexic Mohammed, veiled and turbaned. At one point, Poseidon—sporting waist-length dreadlocks and green body paint—did a back flip. It was that kind of opera.

Not that I expected any other kind of opera: This was, after all, the Deutsche Oper, the Berlin opera company historically famed for what might politely be called its aesthetic “courage.” More important, this was Idomeneo, the Mozart opera that was canceled earlier this year for fear that its final scene—about which more in a moment—might offend Muslims and therefore pose a security risk to the theater. Following a torrent of indignation, much hand-wringing about artistic freedom, and some labored discussion of the need for greater cross-cultural interaction, Idomeneo was reinstated on the company’s schedule. The German interior minister, Wolfgang Schauble, declared he would attend Monday night’s “high-security” performance—high-security in Germany meaning a couple of metal detectors in the hall, which everyone made a great fuss about, and a huge amount of attention. One German TV station broadcast live from the opera house throughout the day; hundreds of cameras swarmed around the entrance foyer, diving at any nonjournalists who looked like they might have bought a ticket and want to talk about it.

In what was meant to be a grand statement about “artistic freedom,” as well as “integration,” Schauble also invited the city’s Muslim leaders to accompany him to the show. A few refused. “It’s part of the concept of freedom of opinion and thought that you also have the right to say you are not going,” said one Muslim leader, which was fair enough.

A few said yes, though they weren’t easy to spot. As far as I could make out, about a third of the audience really were journalists. The rest were a standard, German-German Berlin crowd: little old ladies in pearls, hipsters in black leather, student types in blue jeans. I think I caught sight of a man who could possibly have been Turkish a couple of rows behind me, but I could be wrong. There were no head scarves to speak of. There rarely are, at the Berlin opera. Which was just as well, because any foreigner seriously attempting to integrate into German society might well have been scared off completely by this production.

It’s not that the music was bad. Quite to the contrary, several of the singers were superb, especially soprano Nicole Cabel as Princess Ilia (wearing sensible pumps, in contrast to Electra, who had spiky punk hair). But if one were trying to understand German society, or Western culture, or even Mozart by watching this production, one would have been seriously confused. The music was light, true, but the symbolism was heavy—not to say utterly incomprehensible. Why did the first scene take place at a black table, for example, around which sat corpses? Why did the satyrs wear phalluses on top of their furry costumes? And why did King Idomeneo shoot his pistol at the oracle, who had sweetly taken the form of a loudspeaker to come down to Earth and deliver his deus ex machina?

I’m sure there were some cooked-up reasons for all this, but none were immediately obvious. More to the point, none were even remotely related to the libretto, which is a seriously fluffy piece of nonsense. The main plot is a Faust-like story of a deal Idomeneo does with Poseidon, saving his own life at the cost of sacrificing the first person he meets on land, which turns out to be his son. The subplots involve, among other things, a Romeo and Juliet-like story of doomed love and a few moments of jealousy. It could have been done as a sweet farce, with dancing girls and frippery. Nothing about it called for Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, or beheadings.

But, as the entire audience knew, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed were indeed due to be beheaded, along with Poseidon, at the end of the production. For that, after all, was how the whole controversy started: The head of Mohammed, sitting on a pedestal, presumably offending millions, was what led to the cancelation in the first place. Indeed, as the third act went on, the audience grew increasingly restless, waiting for this moment, even enduring the bit when, unexpectedly, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and Poseidon stripped down to their underwear and walked offstage. The program notes hinted that this removal of clothing symbolized the loss of power—men were taking over from the gods, or some such thing. But—we’re in Germany here—it also reminded me of other occasions in history when people have been told to strip before being executed.

Besides, it was hard not to want to laugh. When was the last time you saw Jesus and Mohammed in boxer shorts?

But finally—finally—after the chorus’ clothes went from multicolored fluorescent to black, after five or six seizures had played themselves out, after Princess Ilia had tried to sacrifice herself in place of her lover, the audience finally got what it had been waiting for. In the last moments of the opera, when everyone else had left the stage, Idomeneo plunked each of the four gods’ severed, bloody heads on a pedestal, before expiring himself, with a dramatic, blood-curdling roar.

Someone in the audience booed. More shouted “bravo.” Then there was a standing ovation, the journalists ran out to file their copy, and a TV talk show started filming, live, in the opera buffet.

We in the audience went home feeling pleased with ourselves. Some might have been disappointed that “nothing happened,” and others might have wished for some intellectual significance on such an important night. Still, we had attended this dangerous production, braved the wrath of radical Islam, stood firm through the bomb threats, and supported integration and artistic freedom. What more can one ask from a night at the opera?