The Passion Play, the story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, is performed in Oberammagau, a small Alpine village, once every 10 years. It is a performance unlike any other in the world — all of the actors and musicians must come from this village. Every actor is a citizen of mountain town of Oberammergau deep in the Bavarian Alps.

This year, 2010, from the 15th of May until the 3rd of October, the play will echo through the village. As they have for almost four centuries, Oberammergau’s villagers will give themselves over to the performance of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

More than half of the town’s population performs in some way in the Passion Play. In the year leading up to this event, once clean-shaven policemen grow beards and bankers let their hair grow long. Tradition in this town holds that fake beards and wigs are strictly against the rules onstage. The “real” biblical look comes naturally. Villagers performing in the play aren’t allowed to cut their hair after Ash Wednesday a year before the show

Why would a town and its descendants maintain this ritual for 375 years without fail? Why, in the face of modern secularism and the mobile family can this cluster of chalets set beneath soaring, snow-covered, jagged peaks keep this commitment and allow the tradition to endure?

This remarkable story goes back to 1633 when the the entire region surrounding Oberammergau was suffering from the “black death,” abject poverty and endless wars. In the midst of this state of pending disaster and destruction the villagers made a solemn pledge to perform the Passion Play every ten years. Remarkably, the town was spared the worst of the pestilence and ravages of war. Ever since, their descendants have carried out that pledge.

Rehearsals for this event last ten months. The villagers selected to play Jesus and Mary, Pontius Pilate and the apostles, the priests, soldiers and children all are already practicing their lines. The choir and the orchestra are beginning to memorize the memorable score, composed in the 19th century by Rochus Dedler, again a resident of Oberammergau.

The director, Christian Stückl, and his staff are all residents of Oberammergau. They have been planning for this summer for a decade, since the last passion play closed in October of 2000. In a break with tradition the townspeople voted to shift the timing of the play to allow Christ to be crucified and die a night was falling. Previously, the five-hour play took place in the morning and afternoon with a break for lunch. This year the play starts in the afternoon and finishes as night falls with a break for dinner.

Packages to see the Passion Play

Tickets for the performances this season have already been sold out — that is, sold out to tour operators and packagers. The only way to see the Passion Play is to purchase a package that includes at least a night in Oberammagau with meals included. (The meals are important, since the play lasts all afternoon and evening with a break for dinner. Without a meal plan, the spectators would never get fed in time to return to the performance.)

The 2010 Passion Play premiere is on Saturday, May 15, 2010. From that point the play takes place a total of 102 times, five days a week with no performances on Mondays and Wednesdays. Each performance begins in the afternoon between 2:30 and 5 p.m. Dinner is served at hotels and then the final part of the play starts at 8 p.m. and ends at around 10:30 p.m.

The Passion Play website has details on tour operators who can arrange for tickets to performances, meals and lodging. Expect to pay between $660 and $1,275 for a two-night package with room and meals per person and between $500 $900 for one-night packages.

Note: Many of these tour operators include Passion Play tickets with other multi-day tours through Europe. Make reservations NOW. Some of the operators, such as American Express, have already sold out the late summer, September and October packages.