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Oberammergau Passion Play, which began as vow to defeat a plague, faces uncertain future


Passionsspiele Oberammergau via Facebook | Fair Use

John Burger - published on 03/11/20

Producers of performance that takes place every 10 years keeping a watchful eye, as coronavirus spreads in Germany.

As the coronavirus epidemic continues to spread to new countries, and the death toll mounts, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel said Wednesday that upwards of 70% of Germans are likely to become infected. Major events, including large cultural performances and sporting events, have been canceled or will take place without spectators.

For the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, the specter of a mass infection from COVID-19 is giving town officials, producers and the hundreds of ordinary villagers who perform in the once-every-decade Passion Play cause for concern.

At the moment, there haven’t been any cases of COVID-19 in the village, but things have been moving so fast that that could be old news by tomorrow. Indeed, there has already been a case reported in the district where Oberammergau is located.

“In Germany the coronavirus is taken very seriously,” said a spokeswoman for the Passion Play, Jenny Greza. “For the district  of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the corona risk has increased because there is a first case in the district. So far there is no case in Oberammergau or the neighbouring municipalities.”

Greza said in an email to Aleteia that the Bavarian state government wants to prohibits events with more than 1,000 visitors until a week after Easter. “If the situation does not calm down by 19th April 2020, the extension of this measure is explicitly not excluded by the Bavarian state government. The situation is therefore constantly being reassessed by the municipality of Oberammergau.”

She added that the Passion Play is developing “emergency scenarios in case the ban on major events is extended beyond April 19, but “as of today we assume that the premiere can take place on 16th May 2020.”

The play is scheduled to run from then until October 4.

The Oberammergau Passion Play began in a somewhat similar atmosphere. In 1631, in the midst of the Thirty Years War, infectious diseases, especially the deadly bubonic plague, spread throughout Bavaria. Oberammergau was spared “by dutiful vigilance,” according to a brief history on the play’s website, “until the church festival in 1632, when a man named Kaspar Schisler brought the plague into the village.”

“Faced with the great distress that the terrible illness inflicted upon the population, the leaders of the community came together and pledged to hold a passion tragedy once every ten years,” the history continued. “From this day forward, not a single person perished, even though a great number of them still showed signs of the plague.”

The Passion Play has been interrupted in the past. With Germany being fully entrenched in the Second World War, the production was called off for the year 1940.

Greza affirmed that the Passion Play will have “the highest possible standards of hygiene, safety and medical care. … The health of our guests and participants is our highest priority.”

She said that rehearsals for the play  are continuing, but limited to “individual rehearsals.”

“No more rehearsals with many hundreds of performers will take place on stage until 31st March 2020,” she said. “Performers of the Passion Play who have been in risk areas in the last few weeks or who have had contact with people who have been in risk areas will be exempted from rehearsals.”

She also advised that anyone interested in attending should visit the play’s website for updates on the situation, “as it may change quickly.”

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