OBERAMMERGAU, Germany – Almost 400 years ago, the Catholic residents of a small Bavarian village vowed to perform a play of “the suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ” every 10 years, if only God would spare them any further losses from the plague known as the Black Death.
Legend has it that ever since 1634, when the villagers of Oberammergau first performed their passion play, no more residents died of that pestilence or any other plagues – until 2020, when the world was hit by a new plague, the coronavirus pandemic. Oberammergau, like so many places worldwide, suffered some COVID-19 deaths, though residents who confirmed that were unsure how many.
Another consequence: The villagers could not fulfill their vow to stage the play after a 10-year interval. It was set to open in the spring of 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic.
Now, after a two-year delay, the famous Oberammergau Passion Play is finally opening on Saturday – the 42nd staging since its long-ago debut. Almost half of the village's residents – more than 1,800 people, including 400 children – will participate in the play about the last five days before Christ's crucifixion.
It's a production modernized to fit the times, stripped of antisemitic allusions and featuring a diverse cast that includes refugee children and non-Christian actors.
The play will be one of the first major cultural events in Germany since the outbreak of the pandemic, with almost half a million visitors expected from Germany and all over the world, notably from the United States.
“Just a few weeks ago, many could not believe that the Passion Play would premiere,” said director Christian Stueckl, who was born in Oberammergau and has been in charge of the play for more than 30 years.
“We don't know what COVID-19 will do, if there will be another wave,” he said. “But we have an endless desire to bring our passion play back to the stage, and we are highly motivated.”
All the actors tested themselves for the virus before every rehearsal and will continue to do so for all 103 performances, which run through Oct. 2, Stueckl said. They have all been letting their hair grow – and the men letting beards grow – for more than a year, as tradition dictates.
With Russia's invasion of Ukraine still underway, themes such as war, hunger, persecution and displacement play prominent roles in this year's production – showing the timelessness of human suffering from 2,000 years ago and from today.
The play – which for hundreds of years reflected a conservative, Catholic outlook – has received a careful makeover to become reflective of Germany's more diverse society. It includes a leading Muslim actor for the first time.