At the Bishops’ Synod in Rome in October 2008, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, talked about the necessity of developing contemporary pilgrimage occasions with appropriate devotional spirit and tone. He noted the Way of the Cross carried out in Sydney and Toronto during World Youth Day. Also cited: the Passion Play at Oberammergau, Germany.
Those fortunate enough to have visited Oberammergau can understand why. The play is a testament to human tenacity — and strong faith. This year, once again, the townspeople of this tiny Bavarian village will keep their promise made in 1633, when a deadly plague spread through Europe following the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). It killed 80 townsfolk. The villagers promised to perform a play depicting the suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ every 10 years if they were spared any further deaths. Miraculously, the disease halted. So, the following year, the first presentation took place. Since then, world events have intervened only a few times to keep them from taking to the stage.
The play initially was performed on a stage in the cemetery above the graves of the recent plague victims. In modern times, the locale has shifted. Today, the entire play, seen by more than half a million visitors from all over the world, takes place in 14 acts on a theater site built in 1830. Originally, it was an open-air venue. In 1890, the stage was enlarged, then renovated in 1990. Today, more than 4,720 viewers can be accommodated.
The play is set in the valley of the River Ammer, among the lush meadows and gentle foothills of the Ammergau Alps. It’s a beautiful village, a fairy-tale place, with its wooden balconies decorated with brilliant red geraniums and houses painted with cheery murals. This picturesque Bavarian village is only one hour away from the lively city of Munich.
In 2010, the 41st season will see 100-plus performances from May 15 to Oct. 3, every day except Monday and Wednesday. The presentation is long. Starting at 2:30pm, it finishes at 10:30, but that includes a three-hour dinner break from 5 to 8pm.
Visual and Musical Feast
The presentation of Christ’s betrayal, crucifixion, death and resurrection is riveting and rich in music, costumes and scenery. There are many tableaux vivants — living scenes — from the Old Testament akin to miniature operas intended to deepen the viewers’ emotional and spiritual understanding. The script has undergone many revisions over the years, including its biggest in 2000 to eliminate any charges that it still contained anti-Semitic material. A new emphasis was placed on the figure of Jesus, presenting him as a character struggling to maintain his faith rather than resigning himself to his fate. In addition, 2,000 new costumes and 28 new pieces of scenery were designed.
As well as a visual spectacle, the play is a musical feast. The original score was composed in the early 1800s by Rochus Dedler, a highly regarded composer of sacred music. Today, even with several adaptations to his music, the score is still based on his original one. Vocal parts, such as a back-of-the-stage solo tenor and choir, heard as the Voice of God in the tableau of the Burning Bush, add to the drama. Present musical director Markus Zwink maintains the grandeur of Dedler’s music with 110 choristers and 56 musicians.
The play’s production is entirely in the hands of the residents of Oberammergau. Only those born there or who have lived there for at least 20 years are allowed to take a part. Most participants have been involved for decades, although their roles may change. About half of the 5,200 inhabitants are involved in some way, whether as seamstresses, stagehands or ticket takers. In years past, there were several restrictions as to who could play what roles. Until 1990 only unmarried women under the age of 35 could participate.
A year before the actual performance, villagers wishing to participate gather outside of the theater to watch the call board as lead role choices are written down. There are 21 double-cast principal roles and 120 additional speaking parts, plus as many as 1,000 participants in crowd scenes (800 adults, 200 children and 50 animals). Beginning on Ash Wednesday the year before the play, the men and women let their hair grow. No wigs or false beards are allowed. The cast rehearses for five months before the opening on an uncovered stage. Because Jesus came from a Jewish patriarchal society, the roles for women in the play are limited, but for the 2010 production, two new female roles have been added: Pontius Pilate’s wife and the woman to be stoned for adultery.
Today, visitors to Oberammergau are both pilgrims and tourists: pilgrims in the sense that they are coming with faith to witness a compelling recreation of “the greatest story every told”; tourists in that they have an opportunity to partake in the many attractions within the village itself. There’s the Bavarian cuisine, a visitors center, the museum with its magnificent collection of Nativity sets and woodcarvings that the village craftspeople are famous for, and the ecumenical building with lectures and devotional services by the chaplains appointed for the play period. And only a few miles away, the Gothic-Baroque Benedictine monastery of Ettal, with its powerful dome and tiny, exquisite Madonna and Child statue, and King Ludwig II’s favorite gem of a palace, Linderhof — a smaller version of the palace and gardens of Versailles — provide endless hours of delight and inspiration.
Yet, the most important reason of all for making the pilgrimage is to experience what the local parish priest told me when I was there: “It’s not enough simply to observe the play. It should also lead to an encounter with this Jesus — our Savior.”
Lorraine Williams writes
from Markham, Ontario.
Planning Your Visit
Tickets sell out quickly. Many tour companies are combining a visit to Oberammergau with visits to the Pilgrimage Church of Weis (a World Heritage Site) and stops at locales closely connected with Pope Benedict XVI, such as Marktl am Inn (where he was born and baptized in 1927), Freising Cathedral (where he and his brother Georg were ordained in 1951) and Regensburg (the university where he taught theology). Visit CometoGermany.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.