OBERAMMERGAU, Germany (AP) — Nearly 400 years ago, the Catholic residents of a small Bavarian village swore to perform a play of “the suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ” every 10 years, if only God would spare them further losses from the plague known as the Black Death.
Legend has it that since 1634, when the villagers of Oberammergau first played their passion, no more inhabitants died from this plague or any other plague – until 2020, when the world was struck by a new scourge, the coronavirus pandemic. Oberammergau, like so many places around the world, has suffered deaths from COVID-19, although residents who have confirmed it don’t know how many.
Another consequence: the villagers could not fulfill their wish to stage the play after an interval of 10 years. It was supposed to open in spring 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic.
Now, after a two-year delay, Oberammergau’s famous Passion Play finally opens on May 14 – the 42nd stage since its debut a long time ago. Nearly half of the village’s residents – more than 1,800 people, including 400 children – will take part in the play about the last five days before Christ’s crucifixion.
It’s a production modernized to fit the times, stripped of anti-Semitic 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 nearly half a million visitors expected from Germany and around the world, including the United States.
“Just a few weeks ago, many could not believe that the Passion Play would premiere,” said director Christian Stueckl, born in Oberammergau and responsible for 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 back to the stage and we are very motivated.”
All of the cast tested themselves for the virus before each rehearsal and will continue to do so for the 103 performances that will run through October 2, Stueckl said. They’ve all been growing their hair — and the men growing their beards — for over a year, as tradition dictates.
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is still ongoing, themes such as war, hunger, persecution and displacement play a prominent role in this year’s production, showing the timelessness of human suffering 2,000 years ago and today.
The room – which for hundreds of years has reflected a conservative, Catholic outlook – has been carefully revamped to reflect Germany’s more diverse society. It features a prominent Muslim actor for the first time and has been purged of many notorious anti-Semitic storylines that have drawn much criticism.
“The story of Oberammergau’s Passion Play as one that manifests these anti-Semitic tropes – Jews as villains, Jews as deceivers, Jews as bloodthirsty, Jews as manipulators, Jews as Christ killers – has is always part of history,” said Rabbi Noam Marans. The Associated Press in a recent interview in Oberammergau.
Marans, director of interfaith and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee in New York, has been advising Stueckl with a team of American Christian and Jewish experts for several years on how to rid the game of anti-Semitic content.
It is a success. The play no longer depicts the Jews as the murderers of Christ and clearly shows that Jesus was a Jew himself. It places the story of the last days of Jesus in a historical context, with all its intra-Jewish tensions and the oppression of the Jews by the Romans.
The male performers wear yarmulkes, making them clearly recognizable as Jews. Of course, there are also many Christian elements, such as the famous choir and orchestra whose musical compositions date back to the early 19th century.
The mixture of Christian and Jewish influences on the actual performance is clearly illustrated during the performance of the Last Supper, when a huge Menorah is lit on the table and the disciples of Jesus recite both Hebrew prayers and the prayer of the Christian Lord.
“Let there be no doubt: in Oberammergau, in the play, anti-Semitism has no place, and it has no place in the lives of the performers either,” Stueckl said.
In addition to addressing the piece’s anti-Semitism, Stueckl made it a more inclusive performance overall.
Until the 1990s, when Stueckl took over, performers had to belong to one of the two main German churches, Roman Catholic or Lutheran. Nowadays, people who have left the church, atheists, Muslims and members of any other religious affiliation are welcome to participate as long as they reside in Oberammergau.
Judas is played by Muslim actor Cengiz Gorur. The deputy director, Abdullah Karaca, is the son of Turkish immigrants. And several children of refugees from Africa and elsewhere, who recently arrived in Oberammergau after fleeing their country of origin, have been invited to perform.
As far as women are concerned, there is still work to be done. Stueckl called the play “very male-dominated” – all of the main roles are male, except only for Jesus’ mother, Mary and Mary Magdalene.
When asked if he could imagine a future performance in which women would play leading male roles, Stueckl shook his head.
“I don’t think I’ll live to see Jesus played by a woman – or Mary by a man,” he said. Then he paused for a moment, smiled and added, “Even though the world wouldn’t end because of this.”
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