‘The Other Mozart’ review: sister act 2

Sylvia Milo's one-sister show at Chamber Music Northwest gives Mozart's talented older sibling Nannerl, her music stifled by sexism, her own voice at last

Unlike the previous night’s Chamber Music Northwest music-theater combination, Ordo VirtutumSylvia Milo’s The Other Mozart, performed July 11 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, ran about 75 minutes with no intermission, and I doubt anyone in the audience felt shorted. It’s an audience-broadening treat to see the festival pursuing these mixed theater and music performances, as with last year’s festival’s Brahms/Muhlfeld show.

In truth, unlike Hildegard, there’s not a lot more to say about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sister Maria Anna, nicknamed Nannerl, at least not that would make interesting stage drama. (She’s been the subject of a film and novels.) That’s because even though she lived more than twice as long as her brother, we know far less about her life, and the patriarchal world she lived in never permitted equivalent opportunities to make it more interesting. Which is part of the point of Milo’s monodrama, which has been running off-Broadway and touring the world since 2014.

Sylvia Milo in ‘The Other Mozart.’

Engagingly narrated (in, for no discernible reason, German-accented English) by Nannerl herself, the story entertainingly tells (not whines) a tragic tale of a talented musician who at almost every turn is denied the opportunities her similarly skilled brother receives, merely because of her gender and her society’s invidious discrimination against it.

Even most classical music fans probably know little of the brat’s big sis beyond the fact that he wrote delightful duets for them to play on keyboards together, and that she was regarded in her time as an excellent player. In The Other Mozart, we learn much about Nannerl’s life from letters she saved  from family members, including her admiring brother himself, and reviews, some praising her youthful keyboard virtuosity. (Most of her own have disappeared — she was only a woman, after all.)

Milo’s narration in Nannerl’s persona gleefully captures the personalities of her brother, father, sister, and other characters she encounters, especially on the European tours arranged by their father Leopold for her and her brother, hoping to turn the performing pre-teen prodigies into money making attractions. Some considered her at least as talented a performer as her brother, who himself thought her the best performer of his keyboard music; she sometimes received top billing.

But eventually her world shrank — just as her brother’s expanded, as Leopold focused his promotional efforts on securing a position for Amadeus, who of course quickly also evinced a gift for composition as well as keyboard virtuosity. We hear about his exciting adventures through Europe via his letters to his beloved sister, which she wistfully recites, happy for her sibling’s success, but clearly, if not always admittedly, disappointed and even resentful that she’s not afforded similar opportunities. What was good for the goose wasn’t good for the gander.

The Mozart family: L-R Maria Anna (Nannerl), Wolfgang Amadeus, portrait of their mother Anna Maria, and father Leopold.

Meanwhile, Leopold ignored Nannerl’s own compositions (though her brother praised them) and their parents feared that taking her away from sleepy Salzburg would impair her marriage prospects there. A touring little girl virtuosa was cute; a touring teen of marriageable age, in her circles at least, scandalous. And a woman composing? Just Not Done. Leopold knew the rules of the day might actually allow his son to attain a paid court position that would support him and the whole family; Nannerl, no way. After finally settling down with a provincial husband and family, Mozart’s sister spent much of her life playing a lonely clavichord in a small room in a small village, far from the palaces and opera houses her brother played.

Given this terrible history, it’d be hard to blame Miles if she’d chosen to have her character unleash diatribes against the sexist society that so shamefully and severely constrained women’s choices. But she makes her point in a more powerful, emotionally involving way: by bringing us a Mozart whose obvious intelligence, charm, refusal to whine and creative potential makes the thwarting of her artistic impulses all the more wrenching. Even when she finally explodes, it feels less like a tantrum than an understandable wail of frustration.

Nannerl’s creative confinement is physically represented by the show’s most audacious and brilliant concept: its set. Or rather its costume. Actually, it’s both: Polish costume designer Magdalena Dabrowska’s colossal, stage-spanning white corseted hoop skirt that functions as both metaphor and prison. Though the script wisely avoids much overt stating (rather than showing) the obvious — women’s patriarchally prescribed identity dictates and limits their creative freedom — Nannerl seems physically defined by and trapped in its billowing structure (designed by Miodrag Guberinic). She more resembled a doll than a living, creative musician.

As much as the show has going for it — and this entertaining, thought- provoking production certainly deserves the widest possible audience — it leaves some gaps and questions. It sometimes feels more like a succession of chronological anecdotes than dramatic developments with scenes that deliver emotional punch. The script’s apparent fidelity to historical fact is admirable, but with so little record to go on, the show seems determined to work in as many major known tidbits of Nannerl’s life as possible, even if they don’t necessarily contribute to her story’s dramatic arc or momentum, especially in the second half. If Miles could enact (rather than mostly recounting) fewer but more developed scenes from the crucial junctures of her life, Nannerl’s story might feel even more poignant. It merely ends rather than resolving.

Nannerl Mozart

And, maybe unavoidably, given the choice to use its subject as narrator, the story leaves important questions unanswered. Why wasn’t Nannerl, for all her talent, able to follow the course of a later female prodigy born a decade before Nannerl’s 1829 death, Clara Schumann, or even her own contemporary, Marianna Martines, one of the few famous female composers of their time, whose opportunities Nannerl envied? When she finally did achieve the freedom to perform and compose in middle age, why didn’t she seize it? The explanations may or may not be known to us, but the show would avoid distracting us with doubts if it could find a way to at least address the questions.

That’s only one respect in which The Other Mozart is imprisoned by the history it chronicles. It’s a show about Nannerl and starring Nannerl — but we mostly hear about (and from, musically) Wolfgang Amadeus. His shadow looms over even Miles’s elevated bouffant. And although Miles has done Nannerl, and history, a valuable service by bringing what little we know of her story to thousands of viewers, even centuries after they lived, Maria Anna Mozart and her music are eclipsed by Amadeus, even in her own show — which exists because of his fame, the fame she never got a real chance to achieve.

Such is the injustice of their society, and of history itself, where marginalized people continued to be excluded from the human story long after they’re gone, because their stories were unjustly thought not worth telling in the first place. Because of all those limitations in her opportunity and our knowledge, Miles’s show inevitably begs the question of whether, if unfettered by stifling sexism, Nannerl’s talents might have been sufficient to have brought her creative success anywhere near her brother’s. We’ll never know, and neither did she. That’s the tragedy.

The rest of this fascinating production rises to the considerable challenge of keeping a one-woman show with few props and a single costume interesting, even riveting. Director Isaac Byrne (like most of the rest of the creative team, a New Yorker) smartly holds audience interest by keeping Nannerl in varied motion, with occasional flourishes, despite her historical and physical constraints. Many of Miles’s moves reflect their period, courtesy of movement director Janice Orlandi, a historic dance expert.

The real key to the show’s success is Miles herself, who channels more than a bit of Amadeus’s reputedly giggly brash spirit while crafting a charming, irrepressible, even ebullient persona of her own. Nannerl’s constrained life contrasts sharply with The Other Mozart’s creator’s: the multitalented Miles is an actress, violinist, playwright, composer, and producer. And she’s created a captivating performance that with some dramatic adjustments could be a great one.

Along with music by Amadeus, of course, we also hear snatches of tunes by Martines, and two members of International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen (better known as a toy pianist) composed composed haunting incidental music, some made by instruments and objects common in Mozart’s time.

And what about the obvious choice: Nannerl’s own music? Apparently, none has survived. Maybe no one thought it important enough to save. After all, it was only written by a woman.

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