Richardson — Last weekend, the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts’ Theater Series presented The Other Mozart, a one-person play written and performed by Sylvia Milo.
The title alone raises some eyebrows. Is it about other child prodigies, such as Georges Bizet or Felix Mendelssohn? No, it really is about another, equally gifted, member of the Mozart family, Wolfgang’s sister Marianne (nicknamed Nannerl). Milo portrays her as she tells us her story. Aided only by a few props, a powdered wig, a vaguely Austrian accent, and bloomers, she brings Nannerl to life right before our eyes—at least her concept of what she was like.
There also was another Mozart in the family, and that was their strict, stern and impossible-to-please father, Leopold. He was a well-known musician in his own right: violinist, conductor, teacher and composer. His violin instruction book, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing), was much celebrated and used by generations of violinists. Even today, it is a treasure trove for musicologists and for those who present historically accurate performance of 18th century music.
Leopold started Nannerl on harpsichord lessons when she was 7 years old. Playing the violin and composing were considered “unladylike.” However, something amazing happened. Much to everyone’s surprise and without any instruction whatsoever, the two-year-old Wolfgang sat down at the keyboard and played back her lesson. Leopold immediately started lessons for both children. By 1762, he took the two on a tour of the capitals of Europe, presenting them almost like a circus act. They were amazing indeed. They were, deservedly, internationally famous. However, by 1770, Nannerl was left at home and Leopold and Wolfgang toured without her. As Milo says, “Wolfie was so clever, playing the harpsichord blindfolded or hanging upside down.”
Milo presents her as a frustrated, but accepting, world-class musician, overlooked because of her gender. You cannot help but wonder what Nannerl would have thought if she could have looked into the future and seen how long such gender discrimination lasted. Even today, vestiges remain in the classical music world, such as the scarcity of women conductors and disparity in the amount of performances of work by women composers.
This is a fate shared by many others, but only a few names survived the ages, such as Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix’s sister. Only Clara Schumann rose to some prominence as a composer, but only because she was another oddity—the greatest pianist of her generation. Even the great American composer Amy Beach (1867-1944) published her music under the modest name of Mrs. H. H. Beach.
Milo portrays Nannerl at many ages, by relating flashbacks while remaining in character. And, while she accepts her fate, she also rages against the misogyny of the era. Unlike her famous brother, she says that a woman musician “… looks ridiculous and loathsome.”
However, Milo presents her as a clever and witty woman, confident of her own abilities, no matter who else praises them.
In the end, a large circle on the stage, which held her props, turns out to be a huge crinoline dress. When she finally puts it on, it traps her and keeps her immobilized. While not the subtlest of endings, there probably is no more effective one.