A Life's Calling


Director Christian Stückl, stage and costume designer Stefan Hageneier, and musical director and conductor Markus Zwink: the trio that will go down in history for putting a new face on the Passion narrative at the turn of the millennium.  With a fresh perspective on the old play, they are gearing up for their third joint production of the Passion Play in 2020 with a view to building a bridge between then and now.

Stefan Hageneier, Markus Zwink, Christian Stückl (Photo: Gabriela Neeb)

Is it a blessing or a curse to stage, orchestrate and outfit the same story over and over again every ten years?

Christian Stückl (CS): To me it's an extremely fascinating task. Every time, you gain a totally new and fresh perspective of the story. Whenever you read the Bible, you read it with your "contemporary mindset". You start your writing from a new angle and you think about what's important now, what you should really focus on at this point. For example, this whole situation with the refugees, how we are treating each other, what religious freedom is all about - this is something that has changed completely. You could say that the story is never truly finished.

Stefan Hageneier (SH): When we first started back in 2008... it was a totally different world from today. It is mind-boggling to think of all that has happened in this past decade. Even down to the most trivial things: Nowadays, you simply get WhatsApp pictures of fabrics from India without ever having to go there. Obviously, the fact that you get older and develop a different take on things also plays a part.

Markus Zwink (MZ): A story will be interesting if it allows you to make a difference. However, many of the musical numbers have become dear to the Oberammergauers' hearts.

SH: In a way, it's like a serial. With this story, you obviously don't start from scratch – it is sort of always on your mind and you are always knocking ideas back and forth.

Is there anything that should or urgently needs to be changed?

MZ: A new touch of the 2010 play was the rendition of "Sh'ma Yisrôel" during the expulsion from the temple. Our intention was to place Jesus in the context of his Jewish environment and to make people realize that he was not the first Christian, but simply a child of his time, his country, and his environment. The colour of the Hebrew language adds whole new mood and dimension to the play, and it doesn't seem like a bad idea to do something similar, in another form, the next time again.

SH: My approach in 2010 was to get the play out of these stone walls, out of the "sword-and-sandal" theatre of Oberammergau, and to reinvent it by using poetry, colour, and visual power. Currently, our focus is back on contents: The Israelites of the Old Testament can be seen in all of the "Living Images" as fugitives. This central motif catapults the story right back into the here and now.

CS: The number of Images has been steadily dwindling since 1990. Obviously, many of them had been designed with a view to discrediting Judaism. But anti-Semitism is a no-go in our play.


These "Living Images" showing scenes from the Old Testament have been a fixture of the Passion play since the Baroque era - why is that?

CS: They are all images which are of relevance to the life of Jesus. Jesus grew up surrounded by these Hebrew images; to him, they are not "Old Testament" but rather the setting in which he was living and acting. Just take the scene of Jesus at the Mount of Olives as he was consumed with fear: in these images he turns into Moses before the burning bush who is told by God to lead his people out of their bondage and who retorts that the task is too big for him. Our objective is not to show the world: That's what the Jews are like. We want to show the world: God works time and again. What the music does is lift the whole scenario to quite another level to incite in the audience the feeling that there is something bigger at work, on an entirely different scale.


Is it necessary to have faith or believe in God to bring the Passion to the stage?

CS: If I did not truly believe in the power of this story and Jesus, I simply would be unable to tell it. Then what would be the point of me telling this story.

SH: Still, the secular view is important because it liberates you enough to approach this whole serious business with a playful and creative mindset.

CS: Traditions are something that have simply grown out something else, and you have to have the courage to break with them at times.


Does the Oberammergau Passion Play intend to send a message to the world? Has its "mission statement" changed?

CS: Obviously, you always hope in some way to reach the people by what you do. Still, I believe the play's "mission statement" has changed over time. Only a hundred years ago, the Passion Play was a propaganda tool of the Church. It was written by a priest, staged by a priest, and even the artist who built the first stage in the cemetery was a young priest. There can be no doubt that their intentions were missionary in nature. My "mission", on the other hand, is to find ways how best to tell the story in this day and age and to highlight what is relevant for our times.

MZ: You could probably say that there is some missionary element at work after all. It is a kind of coming to terms with what the play is all about: I really want to transport some kind of message.

SH: In cultural terms alone, the play is a rich treasure. For example, my children no longer have school lessons preparing them for their  First Holy Communion. I'm doing this on my own initiative, definitely, and not primarily out of religious sentiment but with a view to accessing our cultural context. I believe that this is something worth preserving.

CS: Everything goes back to religion. Whether you read Shakespeare, Büchner, or even Werner Schwab... our religion seems to shine out of virtually every word that was ever written! But much of it has become completely buried. I often notice, even with the younger actors, that something is about to get lost forever: that there is something out there that might work like a big common denominator for all of us.

SH: Yes, just think of the peep-box and Baroque theatre, which is set up like a Christian view of the world... This is something I have given up explaining to my students because they lack the basic underlying knowledge.


What can the Passion Play do to fill this void?

CS: Everything the three of us do will only work if we use powerful imagery, powerful music, and if all blends in harmoniously with the script - this is the only way to truly reach the people. A typical Passion Play production hopes to address not just a single sense, it needs to appeal to all the senses. During the Baroque era, even smells were used in the Play - in an attempt to capture every aspect of human nature. And I believe that this is how theatre is created.


Contemporary theatre?

CS: Some people believe that Oberammergau' theatre is old hat. But nothing could be further from the truth. We are telling a contemporary story. Which is an important story to tell. Today, faith is becoming relevant again, suddenly faith is a new bone of contention, suddenly anti-Semitism is on the rise again, or anti-Islam or anti-Christianity...

SH: We are very much aware of the forces we are dealing with. It is true that this monument which makes its reappearance every ten years is a reflection of our times, but we would do well not to sacrifice everything to zeitgeist.

MZ: I never tire of advising caution: The story, as written from the evangelist Matthew's perspective, is very easy to misunderstand. And we would hate to be misunderstood. Especially in this day and age, you need to go to great lengths to avoid adding fuel to the fire of people you really don't want to encourage.


And what about the future? Would you describe the work for the Passion as your life's calling?

CS: I would say that at the end of the day, it really has turned into something like a life's calling. In a way, it has become part of every one of us.

SH: Well, I got an appointment with my fabric dealer in India for 2029!

MZ: I kind of hope to take "second stage" the next time around. I've done the this job four times now, and there comes a time when you should pass the baton ...

CS: We have no problems whatsoever recruiting new talent - I believe that the Play still has enough draw to intrigue the next generation, if the sheer number of performers is anything to go by. My philosophy about the future: God's favourite joke = man's planning!

Interview: Teresa Grenzmann

Photo: Gabriela Neeb