Monday, September 14, 2009

Oberammergau's Passion Play: Still passionate after 375 years

Every 10 years, more than 2,000 people from the Bavarian village of Oberammergau get involved in a centuries-old Biblical play. Oberammergau's Passion Play was first performed in 1634. Once the season starts in May, there are five performances each week until October

"Jesus is my best friend. We once shared a room in Jerusalem," Carsten Lück says with a grin. His thick head of hair, moustache and beard give him a Biblical look – and so it should. Lück is one of 1,000 actors preparing for the 2010 Oberammergau Passion Play. "Judas has the most demanding part. I try to show that he really was Jesus's best friend before betraying him."

In real life, Lück is good friends with "Jesus"; after all, they grew up together in this village, an hour south of Munich. As I stroll down the main street, cast members are easy to spot as they go about their everyday jobs: bearded waiters and postmen, mustachioed shopkeepers and hoteliers. No wigs or false beards are worn on stage, so men start growing their hair 15 months before opening night. Policemen have special dispensation to abandon their "clean shaven" rule. After all, as I am told, the Passion Play is older than the constabulary.

Oberammergau's Passion Play was first performed in 1634. Threatened by the plague, the villagers vowed to put on a play about the "Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ" every 10 years. They survived and have kept their promise ever since.

And it is still a communal effort. On a backstage tour of the 4,800-seat Passion Play Theatre, our guide Maria explains that: "Only those who were born or have lived in Oberammergau for 20 years are allowed to take part." Half the population, about 2,500, is involved in acting and playing in the orchestra, set-building and sewing costumes. "The crowd scenes are huge. As many as 900 people are on the open-air stage at one time."

In the dressing rooms, every hook has a name above it – a clutch of Feldmeiers here, a couple of Staneks there. Often four generations of a family take part, from great grandparents to babes-in-arm. "This is Jesus's dressing-room," Maria announces.
"The only one with a sink." That is to wash off the "blood" after the crucifixion. The gore is fake, but everything else is real. The spears and armour for the Roman soldiers are forged at the local smithy and, when I pick up the crown of thorns, its spikes are sharp.

I am impressed. Any thoughts of Ambridge amateurs, under a bossy Lynda Snell, are long gone. Credit for the current professionalism is given to Christian Stückl, who took charge in 1990 and turned enthusiasts into convincing actors. He trained in Oberammergau as a wood carver, but the 48 year-old is now a highly respected director at Munich's Volkstheater.

Tradition shadows everything in Bavaria, but the production is not sacrosanct. There are new costumes and a new set; the 19th-century text, once criticised for being anti-Semitic, has been reworked; and there is more music. The 200-year-old score sounds "like early Schubert or Mendelssohn", conductor and composer Markus Zwink tells me. Created for fewer musicians and singers, it had to be expanded, but Zwink is sensitive to what he can alter. "Some pieces are great; everyone knows and loves them. Those I can't touch."

As in an oratorio, the choir and 60-strong orchestra are an essential part of the production and must also be home-grown. As Zwink points out, the play is a catalyst for talent. "Any child showing potential is given lessons. The village has chamber orchestras, youth orchestras, boys' choirs, girls' choirs."

Oberammergau is no German Brigadoon; in between the once-a-decade Passion Play seasons, the twisting lanes are busy. Tourists come year-round to photograph homes decorated with Lüftlmalerei, literally ''paintings in the air''. Most of these frescoes are religious, with the best known the scene of Christ before Pontius Pilate that decorates the Pilatushaus. Inside this 18th-century building, we watch chips fly as a carver creates an angel from a chunk of lime tree. The Pilatushaus showcases other artists: a coppersmith hammering away at a bangle, a potter painting a vase. All are members of a 50-strong craft co-op that takes turns to demonstrate their skills in the atelier and shop.

Visitors also head up the Laber, a 5,000-feet peak overlooking the village. After a cable-car ride, we stare at the waves of blue-green Bavarian Alps fading south into Austria. Once Carsten Lück gets the new script, he will come here: "I go up the Laber and walk around the mountain shouting my lines. In the end, my dog knows the part of Judas as well as I do."

In the 21st century, the villagers' commitment is admirable, giving up time, work, holidays and money. Rehearsals will continue on the outdoor stage this winter, through wind, rain and snow. Once the season starts in May, there are five performances each week until October. And, although the major speaking roles have two actors for each part, everyone else has to turn up like clockwork. With half the village involved, the other half still has to run the town.

The sole survivor of elaborate works that were once common in Germany and Austria, the Oberammergau Passion Play might seem like an anachronism. But in an age of theme parks and star-studded arts festivals, this determination to honour an ancestral vow is impressive. For the religious, it is something of a pilgrimage; for the secular, the music and drama can be deeply moving. I certainly admire the continuity, handed down from generation to generation. As Markus Zwink tells me: "My father was in four productions, but we Zwinks have taken part for centuries." And the Zwinks are not unusual. "That's what we do. In Oberammergau, the Passion Play is in our blood."
Oberammergau Passion Play 2010

The season runs from May 15 to October 3. Each of the 102 performances lasts five hours, from 2.30-5pm and 8-10.30pm, with a three-hour dinner break. Audiences are under cover, but mountain weather can be chilly; take blankets, even long johns.

With only 1,200 beds in the village, tickets are sold as part of a package.

1 comment:

Obermmagau Passion Play 2010 said...

Christ said himself in John 19:38: Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a cock shall not crow, until you deny Me three times. So it's not twice, it's 3 times inevitably. As far as the wording of each question, it may not necessarily be misleading. EX: Christ was tortured by The Romans for hours and was literally nailed to the cross for being himself while the 2 thieves were just bound. Dimas proclaimed Christ as his savior, then he said that he will join him in paradise. How many ways can that be interpreted?