A once-in-a-lifetime visit to see the Oberammergau Passion Play
Oberammergau is a town in the Bavarian Alps, Germany. The small town on the Ammer River is known for its woodcarvers and woodcarvings and ts NATO School. Around the world it is renowned for its 380-year tradition of mounting Passion Plays performed once a decade in the Passion Play Theatre.
Glenda knew about the play as a child, and had known a number of people that have had the privilege of seeing it over the years. She never dreamed that one day she’d have the opportunity to do so herself – and only just because we happen to be living a 5-hour drive away at the time that the Covid postponed event was happening.
May 2022 – October 2022 was the only window from which to choose and with some Australian friends planning to attend at the beginning of June, we couldn’t resist joining them. That said, we didn’t end up there on the same night, but we did manage to catch up with them in Oberammergau a couple of days later when they attended their performance.
About the Oberammergau Passion Play
In the midst of the horror of the 30-year war, the dreaded plague swept across Europe. High in the Bavarian Alps, the citizens of Oberammergau attempted to seal themselves off from the outside world. When a homesick young man sneaked into the village and brought the pestilence with him, 84 residents died within 3 weeks. In desperation, the town council made a solemn vow that if God would stop the plague, out of gratitude, they would present a play depicting the life and suffering of Christ for the duration of their existence. Miraculously, the plague took no more lives in the town. True to their word, the villagers performed their first play in 1634, and have continued to do so to this day.
The first Passion Play performance was held over the graves of the Black Death victims. This location was used until 1820. In 1820 a stage constructed at the site of the present-day Passion Play Theatre. The structure at this time consisted of six steel arch supports. By 1930, the new construction of the open-air stage was completed. The original seating consisting of simple rows of benches was replaced by theatre seating that offered a seating capacity of 5,200. In 1999, 15 million dollars were spent on upgrades such as making the facility wheelchair accessible, as well as new fire prevention measures and stage techniques were modernized. The newly renovated theatre, with its 4,720 covered seats, now offers a worldwide audience maximum comfort and safety. The play takes place outdoors where the sky and mountains are the backdrop.
The play is a wonderful spectacle of pageantry, world-renowned for the costumes and music presentation. Now, more than 2,000 citizens make up the actors, singers, instrumentalists and stage technicians that bring the play to life in approximately six hours of playing time. The year 2022 marked the 42nd time the story was presented in Oberammergau. The play comprises spoken dramatic text, musical and choral accompaniment and tableaux vivants. The tableaux vivants are scenes from the Old Testament depicted for the audience by motionless actors accompanied by verbal descriptions. These scenes are the basis for the relationship between the Old and New Testament, of the play. They include a scene of the brothers selling Joseph into slavery in Egypt, and Moses raising up the bronze serpent in the wilderness. The remainder of the performance is a dramatic presentation depicting the Passion of Christ: the trial, suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
Although the play is in German, it is easy to understand and the play and the music are powerful. The music was written back in 1779 by Rochus Dedler. The music has influences from Mozart and Haydn. Some have compared it to being as romantic and expressive as pieces by Schubert or Weber. Although there have been slight adaptations over the years, it is still based on the original score. There is both an orchestra made up of 55 musicians and a choir that helps bring all of the emotion and scenes to life. In the 2022 Passion Play, 4 vocal soloists and 44 choristers will be performing on stage, in some scenes there are a total of 64 vocalists.
The play is structured in two parts, each of which runs for about three hours, with a three-hour interval in between.
Prelude: The vow
Living Image: The Loss of Paradise
Act I: Jesus enters Jerusalem
Living Image: The oppression of the Israelites
Act II: Jesus in Bethany
Living Image: The dance around the Golden Calf
Act III: Expulsion of the Temple Merchants – Pilate and Caiaphas
Living Image: Israel crosses the Red Sea
Act IV: The High Council – Judas before Caiaphas
Living Image: The Burning Thornbush
Act V: The Last Supper
Act VI: Jesus on the Mount of Olives – The Arrest
(End of Part I – approximately 3-hour break)
Living Image: Daniel in the Lion’s den
Living Image: Job
Act VII: Jesus before Annas/Caiaphas
Living Image: Cain und Abel
Act VIII: Jesus is mocked – Peter’s remorse- Judas demands Jesus back – The despair of Judas
Living Image: Moses before the Pharaoh
Act XI: Jesus before Pilate/Herod – The Flagellation
Living Image: Josef’s Dream
Act X: Jesus condemnation by Pilate
Living Image: Isaac’s sacrifice
Living Image: The Bronze Serpent
Act XI: Way of the Cross – Crucifixion
Act XII: At the Tomb
From Italy to Germany
We were glad to only have a short drive to Oberammergau from our 2 night stay in the South Tyrol in Italy. It was a beautiful drive and we could enjoy it without feeling too much pressure.
As it turned out, we were particularly fortunate as we managed to get through the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen just before what turned out to be a horrific train crash that killed 5 people and injured many others. Naturally, the train line was blocked as was the road.
Exploring the little town of Oberammergau
With a population of around 5,000 people, the town of Oberammergau doubles in size each day during passion play season, given the approx. 5,000 person capacity of the theatre. Having been fortunate to obtain a night’s accommodation in town, and having organised an early arrival, we arrived just after noon to a sleepy village full of beautiful picture book buildings covered with frescoes.
It wasn’t long before the busloads started arriving in the lead-up to the performance starting at 2:30pm. We were glad to get our bags unloaded into the apartments and find some parking in the centre – happy to have it included in the accommodation – and relax over a coffee before the show. With a 3-hour first half, we needed to be ready – particularly as it would all be in German.
After our relaxing coffee break, we checked out some of the displays around town related to the play before wondering up to the theatre precinct
The security queues were long, or more accurately, the queues for the women. They were separate to allow for the rather thorough (and non social distancing) pat down. We still had time to check out some of the displays in the precinct before the theatre doors opened to welcome us.
Glenda has limited ability to sit through a movie, so wasn’t sure how she was going to manage three hours confined in a theatre seat. Being on the end seats next to the aisle probably helped, but the magnitude of the production and the excitement in the air, made the time disappear. Hundreds of people of all ages on stage holding palm branches and yelling as Jesus entered on a huge donkey was a memorable highlight.
The 3-hour interval gave us plenty of time to wander back to the apartment to unpack, have a cup of tea and enjoy an amazing dinner that we’d pre-booked. A spacious temporary restaurant had been set up in the theatre precinct. We had expected noise, shared tables, cheap booze and average food. Even being greeted by name as we arrived didn’t prepare us for the professional staff, fine dining and an endless supply of top-notch drinks.
Soon we were back in the theatre for the second half. It’s impossible to describe the impact of seeing 2000 people on stage, many of them yelling crucify him as Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate. Although we didn’t understand the language, we could not remain emotionally or spiritually untouched by the scale and magnitude of the performance. WOW!
It was drizzling as we made our way back to our accommodation a little after 11pm, still amazed at the privilege of the experience.
This video filming some of the scenes during the full dress rehersal will give you an idea of the incredible spectical. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwadYNTE2Vg