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OBERAMMERGAU PASSION PLAY 2020

Oberammergau in Bavaria is known throughout the world for its Passion Play, which has been performed every ten years since 1634. The next production will take place in 2020. It is a formidable joint effort by the whole village. For the 2020 production planning will begin in February 2019, when the residents of Oberammergau will grow their hair long and men will stop trimming their beards. Those wishing to play lead roles such as Jesus or Mary will defer marriage, to conform to the casting traditions which are still upheld today.

In April 2019 the actors will be announced and at the beginning of November more than 2,000 residents – chosen to take the parts of Jesus, Mary, Caiaphas, Pilate, Judas, John, the priests and soldiers, the people of Jerusalem and the 470 children who participate in the Play - will work on their scenes with the director. Under the musical director, 120 choir members and the 70 members of the Passion Play orchestra will practise and polish the musical compositions of the composer, Rochus Dedler of Oberammergau. Many visitors are astonished by the powerful role that music plays within the performance. Almost a third of the five-and-a-half hour performance is taken up by musical compositions, almost equivalent to a complete oratorio.

This meticulous preparation over 12 months is carried out in order to accomplish what the Evangelist Luke described at the end of his narration of the Passion of Christ: “When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their chests and went away”.

HISTORY OF THE PLAY

In 1632 the bubonic plague swept through the village of Oberammergau and by 1633 nearly everyone had experienced a death in the family. The villagers made a sacred vow that if God would protect them from more deaths, every ten years they would perform a Passion Play depicting the suffering and last days of Christ, to be held in the town’s cemetery. Their wish was granted, and on Pentecost 1634 the population of Oberammergau performed the first ‘Play of suffering, crucifixion and revival of our Lord Jesus Christ’ on a stage which was built at the cemetery, over the graves of those who died of the plague. The performance combined material from two other plays, a passion play from the second half of the 15th century and a Christian Reformation Tragedy by the Master Singer, Sebastian Wild of Augsburg. It covered the final period of Christ’s life, from his journey through Jerusalem to his crucifixion.

In the 32nd year of the Play the architect Raimund Lang replaced the original stage with a monumental one seating 5,200 people, whilst his brother Georg produced the first modern performance of the Play. In 1990 the youngest ever director was elected - a 27-year-old sculptor, Christian Stückl. In that year for the first time married and older women became eligible to perform the Play - a right they secured after the woman of Oberammergau appealed to the highest regional court. In 2020 the part of Jesus will be played by a psychologist.

THE MUSIC

When Rochus Dedler, a teacher and composer from Oberammergau, composed the music for the Passion Play in 1820 it was meant to underscore the dramatic action on-stage. Musical compositions of the past, like Mendelssohn´s score for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night´s Dream or Beethoven´s score to Egmont, are characterised by their independence from the text - a characteristic which echoes traditional ecclesiasticial oratorios. The musical compositions by Rochus Dedler follow a similar pattern.

Criticism about the music grew in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the melodies being described as too catchy and the performance by the musicians and vocalists rather rustic. As a result, each Passion Play season the orchestra was expanded and the number of vocalists steadily increased until a sizable choir was established.

In the light of the emerging trends in the 1970s for a return to more historically informed performances, there was a possibility that Dedler´s original music would have been revived. However, this was thought to be too radical for a present-day audience and the idea was shelved. With each 10-year performance there are minor alterations to the text, music and stage scenery, after some heated debate in the village.