Overshadowed by her brother, Nannerl Mozart was a talent in her own right


Big Sister

To understand why one of the mid-18th century’s most talented composers remains relatively unknown today, you only have to look to the corset.

The Other Mozart, a one-woman show written and performed by Sylvia Milo and directed by Isaac Byrne, tells the story of Nannerl Mozart, the older sister of Amadeus, who was a keyboard virtuoso and composer in her own right until 18th century European mores kept her home and searching for a husband instead of musical commendation.

“In a world still unequal in opportunities for women, we accept a view of history dominated by great men, like Amadeus Mozart,” Milo explains. “I find Nannerl’s story so very important. Most female composers from the past have been forgotten, their music lost or gathering dust in libraries. To bring this other Mozart to people’s minds is to inspire them, and it brings women into the history of greatness.”

Originally from Warsaw, Poland, Milo discovered Nannerl’s existence on a short trip to Vienna celebrating Amadeus Mozart’s 250th birthday. “As I was discovering Vienna through Mozart, I toured one of Amadeus’ apartments (now a museum), and there, by the entryway to the kitchen, I saw a small picture of a portrait of the Mozart family,” Milo remembers. “Next to Amadeus sat a woman with a very large hairdo, also playing the harpsichord, their hands intertwined. I have never heard that there were two Mozarts. I started researching her story, looking for her in all the biographies of Amadeus and reading the family letters. She slowly emerged to me through the letters.”

Using Nannerl’s own letters, as well as those lovingly written by family members, Milo investigates her rise and fall from musical fame. But Milo also explores why, using sight, smell, and sound in her interpretation of Nannerl’s story.

Music boxes and toy pianos can be heard all around the theater. The smell of powder and perfume lingers, and the stage is filled with extravagant cloth. Nannerl’s dress, 18 feet in diameter, spills over the stage from a corset standing upright. “Nannerl is first seen as she emerges from underneath this giant dress, which is her world,” Milo explains. “A symbol of womanhood and status, the dress begins as a plaything and gradually becomes her responsibility.”

The show is set in, on, and underneath its costume. Composers Nathan Davis (who performed at Music in Time this year) and Phyllis Chen (currently in residence at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center) wrote original music for instruments Nannerl would have known intimately, such as clavichords, music boxes, and bells, as well as teacups, fans, and other ordinary objects that might have captured her imagination.

As Nannerl’s magical moments of inspiration give way to disappointment, she rises in the great dress she was born with, a throng of keyboards ascending with her.

“The multi-sensory elements bring Nannerl’s era closer to us,” Milo says. “The audience actually experiences Nannerl in her space and has a visceral reaction.”

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