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A Passionate Performance — Oberammergau prepares for 2010

It may be the biggest tourism event of the decade, and it’s certainly the most anticipated event that faith-based tourism has ever seen — soon, and very soon, the Oberammergau Passion Play is coming.

You’ve likely heard a lot of buzz about Oberammergau over the past year or so. It is the largest passion play in the world, and it only happens once a decade in a small village in the Bavaria region of Germany. But it’s no ordinary church-choir production: The Oberammergau Passion Play is epic in every respect, from its origins to its performance quality and worldwide fame.

Starting with a promise

In 1633, the Thirty Years War was raging in Europe, and along with it, the bubonic plague was sweeping the continent. Bavaria’s Ammer Valley, though largely protected from the war, was not immune to the plague. In Oberammergau (which means “upper Ammer Valley” in German), the plague bested villagers’ efforts to quarantine themselves, and by late in the year, it had claimed the lives of almost half of the town’s inhabitants.

The Bavarian Village of Oberammergau is known for its charming architecture and world-class passion play. By Brian Jewell

Meeting to discuss the plight of their small village, the city leaders of Oberammergau turned to prayer in their local church. It was during one of their prayer meetings that they decided to present a grand request to God: If he would spare their village from any more death by the plague, they would perform a re-enactment of Christ’s passion every 10 years for the rest of time.

By the end of the year, villagers saw that the plague had subsided, and so they busied themselves preparing their first passion play. The premiere was performed at the time of Pentecost in 1634 on a stage erected in the cemetery over the graves of the plague victims.

Oberammergau was not the only village performing a passion play; during the early 17th century, some 40 passion play sites were set up in Bavaria and Austria. But the villagers in Oberammergau were remarkably faithful to their pledge. In the nearly four centuries since then, the play has been performed 40 times.

Though it began as a simple production by villagers for villagers, Oberammergau has grown to be the largest and most famous passion play in the world. Performances now take place from mid-May through early October in a theater custom-built for the production. In 1980, 1990 and 2000, the play drew more than 400,000 audience members each year.

Preparations under way

Performances of the 2010 Oberammergau Passion Play begin in May, but preparations are well under way today for the massive event. Almost everyone in this town of about 3,500 takes part in some way or another: About 2,000 locals will appear on stage as a part of rotating casts throughout the summer, and other residents work in support with meals, accommodations and other logistics.

For the first time, performance of the passion play will take place in the evening, so that scenes of Christ’s death and resurrection will be dramatically lit. Courtesy Oberammergau Passion Play

I visited Oberammergau for a day in July and found a quiet village that is well prepared for the massive events of next year. The traditional shaving edict went out around Ash Wednesday this year, so most local men have stopped shaving their beards and cutting their hair to more accurately portray the styles of Jesus’ time.

Preparations are also under way at the passion play theater. During my visit, artists were busy constructing and painting some of the many props and set pieces that will be used in the drama. The stage area of the theater was recently retrofitted with a new retractable roof. The audience seating has long been inside a covered pavilion, but the addition of the stage roof will allow the traditionally outdoor performances to continue even in inclement weather.

The 2010 production brings other departures from tradition as well. Since the 1600s, the play has been performed during the daytime. But at the demand of the current director, the 2010 play will be an afternoon and evening affair. The show will begin at 2:30, stop for a three-hour dinner break around 5:00, and then resume at 8:00 and run until around 10:30.

One key tradition, though, is not changing: The Oberammergau Passion Play is performed entirely in German.

Beyond the drama

Of course, if you make the long trip across the Atlantic to Germany for the play, you’ll want to make the most of your time beyond the passion play itself. Local organizers and international tour operators offer a wide variety of ways in which to maximize the trip.

Most Oberammergau tickets are sold as parts of packages that include one or two nights’ accommodations in an area hotel, along with a number of meals. Visitors can also enjoy the charms of Oberammergau outside of the play. The city features beautifully painted and landscaped homes, along with shops selling traditional religious woodcarvings and Christmas items year-round.

For church group leaders, the best way to plan a trip to Oberammergau is through a tour operator. Many large and small tour companies have set up special itineraries for Oberammergau that include the passion play, as well as tours of favorite European destinations such as Germany, Italy or the Swiss Alps.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.