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One of the leading opera houses in Germany has canceled a presentation of the Mozart opera Idomeneo because of a potential security risk. The production includes a scene - not part of the original opera - that features the severed heads of religious leaders, including Muhammad. The director of the Deutsche Opera in Berlin says she was warned by security officials that staging the production could pose a security risk. Politicians have criticized the decision. It follows an uproar in the Muslim world over a recent speech the pope made in Germany and protests over cartoons of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper.

From Berlin, NPR's Emily Harris reports.

(Soundbite of opera, “Idomeneo”)

EMILY HARRIS: The opera tells the story of how Idomeneo, the king of Crete, got out of a promise to Poseidon, the god of the sea, to kill his own son. The canceled production broadened the theme of human discontent with demands of the gods. In the epilogue, Idomeneo takes the heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed out of a bloody bag and puts each on a chair in triumph.

(Soundbite of opera, “Idomeneo”)

HARRIS: The performance was controversial when it premiered three years ago, but Deutsche Opera director Kirsten Harms says she decided to cancel Idomeneo performances scheduled for this season to avoid endangering opera employees and the public. She said local security authorities advised that the scene showing Mohammed's severed head could possibly create problems.

Ms. KIRSTEN HARMS (Deutsche Opera Berlin): (Through translator) What matters to me is the fact that the Berlin Criminal Investigation Office looked into it, and the Berlin interior minister told me there could be problems. To ignore these facts could have had consequences. The question now is how we handle these cases in the future. This was an ad hoc decision.

HARRIS: It did appear a bit ad hoc. Germany's interior minister, on a visit to Washington, said it was crazy to cancel. Berlin security officials emphasize the decision to cancel came from the opera house alone. There seems to have been no specific threat. Police say they weren't aware of the production until a phone call on a hotline from an audience member, which came this summer when the opera wasn't running.

Helmut Mauro covers classical music for the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. He says the opera's producer, Hans Neuenfels, has been controversial in the past.

Mr. HELMUT MAURO (Suddeutsche Zeitung): He forces people to think about the opera and not just take it as they're used to. He's looking for a new view on the plot. He doesn't fear political links, but he's not looking for scandals.

HARRIS: The decision has been fiercely criticized by conservative German politicians. Wolfgang Bosbach is a security expert with the Christian Democratic Party.

Mr. WOLFGANG BOSBACH (Christian Democratic Party): (Through translator) For centuries, we have been struggling for human rights, for civil rights, for freedom of opinion, for freedom of arts and culture. Now, whenever something is said that might be misunderstood by religious fanatics, we must not take it back. We must not go on our knees. If we did, we would question everything we have achieved in civil society.

HARRIS: Tomorrow, the German government kicks off a formal, multi-year conversation with Muslims here. Ayyub Axel Köhler heads the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. Although he's not seen the opera, he says it is hard for Muslims to be integrated into German culture.

Mr. AYYUB AXEL KÖHLER (Central Council of Muslims in Germany): There has been many problems arisen through the discussion of the so-called (speaking foreign language), the cultural identity of Germany, and in this concept we don't belong to the German culture.

HARRIS: The canceled performances of Idomeneo will be replaced with Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Verdi's La Traviata.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Berlin.

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