The Playgoer: Much Idomoneo About Nothing

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Much Idomoneo About Nothing

Political columnist Anne Applebaum--a right-leaning writer known most for her book on Soviet gulags and her hawkish views against radical Islam--follows up the whole Deutsche Oper "Idomoneo" controversy by writing up the opening night for Slate. Yes, the show went on. And after all the rumors of bomb threats and "Muhammed-cartoon" level riots, all it stirred up were some boos and razzies.

Applebaum captures well the anticlimax inevitably felt at most "controversial" productions.

[A]s 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?

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