Monday, November 15, 2010

Oberammergau: Passion Play 2010.

"Some experiences simply do not translate. You have to go to know."
~Kobi Yamada

Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany.

There are almost no words to describe how wonderful it was to be in Oberammergau, a picture-perfect village nestled in the verdant Bavarian Alps, in southern Germany, and go to the Passion Play on closing night of its 2010 run.

As you may likely know, The Passion Play occurs every ten years in Oberammergau, as a result of a promise Oberammergauers made with God in 1633. Experiencing the effects of the Thirty Years' Ward and the Plague, and already having lost almost half their village population to it, they made a promise with God to put on a "passion play" every ten years depicting the Passion of Christ (His life, suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection) if Oberammergau would be spared. They indeed survived, and the first Passionsspiele in Oberammergau was performed in 1634, in the old Church yard.

The tradition continues nearly four centuries later, having brought millions to Oberammergau, a town which is now inextricably bound to The Passion Play. The world-renowned production is cast only with residents of the village, who look forward to this event for ten years and spend an entire year rehearsing. Even more time is likely spent by the men growing out their hair and their beards. The nearly 1000(!) performers all meet the strict requirements of being born in Oberammergau or having lived there for more than 20 years. There were so many people on stage that we wondered if there was anybody else left in town. (Apparently there were, since the population was 5,204 as of December 2009.)

The regular performances at ten-year intervals have only been interrupted a few times due to WWII, economic hard times, as well as additional performance runs commemorating anniversary years, such as 1934 (300-year anniversary) and 1984 (350-year anniversary). The past three runs (1990, 2000, and 2010) have all been directed by the same director, Christian St├╝ckl.

In 2000, the greatest reform of the script since 1860 occurred in an effort to eliminate much of the anti-Semitic overtones, which were endorsed and encouraged by Adolf Hitler. According to Wikipedia, the following changes were made:
  • changing some of the high priests' names from Old Testament names to newer New Testament-era names such as Demetrios, Alexander, or Bacchides;
  • the role of the Temple traders has been reduced;
  • the character "Rabbi" has been eliminated and his lines given to another character;
  • Jesus has been addressed as Rabbi Yeshua;
  • Jesus speaks fragments of Hebrew in the play;
  • Jews have been shown disputing with others about Judaism, not just about Jesus;
  • Pilate has been made to appear more tyrannical and some revision of lines was done to reflect that;
  • Jesus' supporters have been added to the screaming crowd outside Pilate's palace;
  • removing the line "His blood is upon us and also upon our children's children" (from Matthew 27:25), and "Ecce homo" (Behold the man);
  • Peter, when questioned by Nathaniel regarding abandoning Judaism replies, "No! We don't want that! Far be it from us to abandon Moses and his law"; and
  • at the Last Supper Jesus recites the blessing over the wine in Hebrew.

The spectacular colors, music, staging, and costuming of the Passion Play all contributed to its stunning and breathtaking presentation. The stage is open to the elements, while the audience is shielded. Although the weather was beautiful, though just a tad chilly, the night we were there, I've been told that these seasoned actors have performed (and rehearsed) in all types of weather conditions.

The Passion Play stage before it started.

Opening up the play, as well as acting as narrators throughout, was a choir dressed in white robes and hats. They were simply stunning to watch. I couldn't believe how close in height they all were. In fact, they were so uniform in dress and size, that it was almost distracting, since I was looking for the flaw or the one that didn't look like he or she belonged. They were seamless. Their voices were beautiful and their movement across the stage -- so fluid.

Narration was provided through song by the choir, who would often break their straight line, separating at the middle and smoothly moving in two lines, diagonally flanking the inner stage, just as the curtains were lifting to reveal what were called "Living Images."  These images were recognizable stories from the Old Testament posed by live actors who remained completely motionless for up to a minute. They were intended "to aid in theological analysis" according to our program. Bright color schemes dominated these images and really invoked a passionate, meditative feeling as you observed and listened to the choir narration.

Living Image: Paradise Lost.

Living Image: The Feast of Passover before the Exodus from Egypt.

Living Image: Moses leads the Israelites through the Red Sea.
(You can tell this was a rehearsal because they are not all in costume.)

Living Image: The Violent Attack at the High Place of Gibeon

My goodness, the vibrancy of those colors was just incredible! Really, they were breathtaking.

Part One (Acts I-V) began at 2:30 in the afternoon and finished at around 5:15 in the evening, at which time there is a three hour dinner break. All six of us (Fred, Linda, Sarah, KDJ, Andrew, and I) strolled back to our Bed & Breakfast to eat dinner and take a quick cat nap, in preparation for Part Two (Acts VI-XI), which began at 8:00 in the evening and ended sometime around 11:00 that night. We had prepared a "picnic" dinner that morning in Stuttgart, so we could just eat at our B&B, since we knew that the 5000+ audience members would also be dining in tiny Oberammergau.

Oh and remember from my previous posts, how Andrew is seven years old? Yeah, he was SO incredibly well-behaved for probably the youngest Passion Play attendee ever. During the second half, Sarah allowed him to bring his Nintendo DS to play under a blanket when he got a little bored. Incredibly, he watched the majority of the whole thing, but this is what he looked like when he was taking a break.

Sarah and Andrew at the Passion Play.

The rest of us.

As I mentioned before, it was closing night, which meant that the bows included both casts, the musicians, and the director and lasted for a good twenty minutes or so and we were allowed to take pictures. The major roles were double casted, which is certainly understandable since they did over 100 performances this year. Watching the 1000 people filter on stage for the bows and then remain there, not wanting to leave, I was reminded of that "closing night" letdown or post show withdrawal and depression. And to think... these Oberammergauers have performed this for five months, and prepared for it about a year before that! And we're not talking about a performance of Oklahoma! either. This is the Passion of Christ. How incredibly moving and life-changing this experience must be for all of them and what a privilege to be involved.

Closing Night Bows.
Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany. 3 October 2010

The play was performed in German, with some Hebrew, so we were able to follow along in our "textbook" in English. Reading the actual words in English was nice, but if you knew the basic story of Christ's life, it was very easy to follow along and know what was going on. The actors were incredibly, dare I say it, passionate. Despite knowing that this is a world-renowned production in its 41st run, I was truly shocked with the intensity and reality of the acting. There was simply no way, in my mind, that anyone could have left that theater without being completely emotionally moved. I was changed. I gained a much deeper appreciation for Christ's Atonement from watching this portrayal of His life and death. These 2010 Oberammergauers certainly paid excellent tribute to their ancestors from 1634 and to their Savior, Jesus Christ.  Just spectacular!

It's already on my calendar for 2020!

And now, if you still don't feel like you were there, watch this:

Stay tuned for more photos of Oberammergau and the breathtaking Bavarian Alps.
Photos of the crowd surrounding Jesus on the donkey, the choir,
and the Living Images were all found online in a Google search.
If attribution is needed, feel free to contact me.
All other photos are mine.

1 comment:

Andrea, Mrs. said...

Wow! What an AMAZING experience. I didn't know this happened at all. Wow.