The countdown to the Oberammergau Passion Play 2020 begins in earnest today, with the first performance exactly two years away.
More than 2,000 actors, all of whom were born in the tiny German village, will take part in the 42nd staging of the play, to be directed for the fourth time by Christian Stückl.
Rehearsals will start in November next year, lasting eight months.
The five-hour-show, with its three-hour-break, begins in the afternoon with the entry into Jerusalem and tells the passion story from the last supper to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
It ends in the evening with the resurrection.
A total of 103 shows are scheduled in total for 2020; with the last set to take place on October 4th.
Under the leadership of Stückl the play has sought to widen its audience in recent years, expanding from its religious roots to welcome those with an interest in theatre, classical music and performance art.
As Stückl explains: “The play had to change; we were losing the young audience and it was dying.
“It was a mess when I was appointed – a holy mess – and we have worked hard to reconnect with the people of Oberammergau to bring the play back to life.
“Since the Passion Play takes place once every ten years, I keep having to write the text in a new way, tell the story in a new way.
“I’ll include things I learned from the previous play.”
He added the next Passion Play will come in a completely new appearance.
“In a great community effort starting in autumn, new costumes and set designs by Stefan Hageneier will be made.
“What is more, 120 new choir members and the 70-member-passion orchestra must be re-cast in the course of the next few weeks upon instruction by the music director Markus Zwink,” explained Stückl.
While the play traces its roots to the 1634, it only become an international event following a visit from British travel pioneer Thomas Cook.
Witnessing the play in the 1880s, he promised to bring a UK audience to the show, if sufficient infrastructure improvements were made.
This led to the construction of a new auditorium in the town and the launch of the first electric railway in Germany to transport guests.
In the following decades the Passion Play grew into a ‘must see’ spectacle for discerning travellers, before being halted by WWII.
Indeed, the cancellation in 1940 was only the second time the show failed to take place, following a disagreement in 1770 over the role of religious entertainment in the Enlightenment era.
Today, under the leadership of Stückl, the show has regained its place as an international spectacle of the highest order.
“Traditionally, the Oberammergau Passion Play is one of the most important trademarks of the cultural destination of Germany,” explained Petra Hedorfer, chair of the German National Tourist Board.
“Around one million additional international overnight stays in the year of the play are a clear proof of the international attraction of this event.”
As Hedorfer points out, the play is uniquely connected to the culture of Bavaria and its well-preserved tradition.
Ever since 1634, the world’s most successful amateur dramatic performance keeps finding new ways to tell the story of the last days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Only those who were born in Oberammergau, or who have lived there for more than 20 years, are allowed to take part in the play
This time the play will be actively advertised in 27 markets by the German Tourism Board.
North America, Great Britain and Scandinavia continue to be the most important foreign markets.
“But we also try to develop new markets such as France, Poland and the Benelux states,” added Hedorfer.
While widening its audience in recent years, the play has also sought to widen its participation.
Protestants are now allowed to take part as actors, for example, while unmarried women and those under 35, who were previously banned, have been invited to perform.
The previously anti-Semitic tone of the play has also been removed, while local religious groups have been involved in the reworking of the text.
Now it is a celebration of the life of Christ – allowing the whole village to participate.
As Stückl jokes: “One year before the performance the whole of Oberammergau begins to grow their hair.”
A total of 18 UK tour operators are currently offering packages to the 2020 Oberammergau Passion Play.
However, the figure is dwarfed by those in North America, with visitors from the United States expected to snap up a large proportion of the tickets in the coming months.
The message from the German National Tourism Office is very much to move fast, in order to avoid missing out on this once in a decade spectacle.
For those looking to organise their own travel, individual tickets go sale in October.
With the Oberammergau auditorium holding just under 5,000 spectators, this means there are around half a million tickets on offer this year.
They are price at a surprisingly reasonable €35-150.
The Passion Play dates back to a pledge made in 1633 when the people of Oberammergau promised to act out the suffering and death of Jesus Christ once every ten years in exchange for a cessation of plague deaths.
When tickets go on sale, the pledge will be renewed and the actors will be announced for the 2020 performance.