In 1633, a southern German village vowed to put on a play about Jesus every 10 years if God rid them of the plague -- and this weekend, the inhabitants of Oberammergau made good on that promise once again, AFP reported Sunday.
The 2010 version of the "Passion Play" even kept the tradition that only those born in the Bavarian village can take part. Otherwise, you must be resident in the town for at least 20 years or married to a villager for 10.
More than 2,000 of the village's 5,200 inhabitants act, sing, play in the orchestra or work backstage -- meaning that once a decade, and for about a year, normal life in Oberammergau is suspended.
"The tension is rising by the minute," 30-year-old Frederik Mayet, who doubles as the play's press spokesman and one of two actors taking it in turns to play Jesus, said before Saturday's premiere.
"You can really feel it in the whole village right now."
To add some biblical authenticity to the five-and-a-half-hour play, which is performed five times a week until Oct. 3, many of the men grew beards and long hair.
"You could be forgiven for thinking that Oberammergau is some sort of hippy village at the moment," said Mayet.
Organizers, making full use of the internet and package tour bookings, are hoping to match the 500,000 visitors from all over the world who came to the village in 2000 -- although the recession is hitting ticket sales, particularly from the U.S.
With a scandal about pedophile priests also rocking Germany and other countries in recent months, the play is also a chance for some much-needed good publicity for the Roman Catholic Church.
With so many of Oberammergau's inhabitants participating, people were forced to take time out of their day jobs for rehearsals, which began in earnest in November.
One of the actresses playing Mary Magdelene is normally a stewardess for Lufthansa, while another Mary, Jesus' mother, works in one of the village's many gift shops.
The play begins with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and covers his betrayal by Judas Iscariot, trial by Jewish elders, crucifixion and resurrection -- all in a purpose-built theater, some of it open to the elements.
The action, in German and some Hebrew, is complemented by 50 white-robed choristers and tableaux vivants -- scenes from the Old Testament with actors remaining completely static -- accompanied by music.
Although hardly any professionals are involved, one of the exceptions is director Christian Stueckl, 48, who regularly directs the Munich Volkstheater but is Oberammergau born and bred.
But what the play might lack in polish is more than made up for by atmosphere and sheer scale. Hundreds of lavishly-costumed people are on stage in some scenes, joined by donkeys, camels, goats, sheep and a horse.
The play evolved greatly over the centuries, particularly since Stueckl's first interpretation in 1990, when aged just 28 he introduced changes that earned him hate mail from some.
"In 1990, we had a Protestant as a leading actor for the first time. The priest at the time thought the world was going to end. Today, many of the actors don't even belong to the Church," he said.
"At the end of the day we're all Oberammergauers, and that's what counts."
One actor is even a Muslim.
Other changes included loosening the rules about women's participation and portraying Judaism in a more positive light. The second half will now be in the evening for the first time, allowing more use of stage lighting.
But not everyone is happy with the casting.
"Actually, the role I really want is Judas," said Mayet.
"But the guy who played Jesus in 2000 is now Judas, so I have hope."
(This article is provided by NewsCore, which aggregates news from around News Corporation.)