Alongside every great man is a woman who may be as wildly talented and unique as he is. Yes, of course, that’s not the way the saying goes. But permit here the morphing of the phrase for the sake of Nannerl. Never heard of her? Well, what if we told you her last name was Mozart? And that she was the great virtuoso’s older sister. Sure, this will allow you to place her firmly into the family tree, but it leaves out the most interesting part. Apparently she was just as musically talented as her famous younger sibling.
So says Sylvia Milo, who first encountered Nannerl on a trip to Vienna’s Mozart House, where she saw a portrait of the siblings playing a four-handed piano piece. Further research revealed Nannerl’s remarkable (but not banked upon or allowed to develop fully) talents (she was a female in the 1700s, after all), leading Milo to write and star in her one-woman show The Other Mozart.
The 2014 play, which started off touring the Fringe Festival circuit, made its way to a critically acclaimed and award-winning Off-Broadway run and has toured for more than 100 shows in the United States and internationally, including in Mozart’s own Vienna and, now, Houston.
Cue the music and let the sibling rivalry begin.
“Could it have been me? Could even a little of it have been mine?” These are the questions that haunt Nannerl Mozart at the close of the 75-minute show as she contemplates her famous brother’s career. Laid out chronologically, this history lesson as entertainment show snapshots us through the life of the Mozart siblings as told from the perspective of his lost-to-obscurity sister. But before the fame, before the questions and even before the virtuoso brother was born, there was Nannerl, single child of a Salzburg music teacher father and a traditional housewife. It’s this youngster that we meet at the start of Milo’s stylized, girl-powerless show.
On a set almost completely covered by a glorious 18-foot, billowed-out, white, flouncy period dress strewn with letters, musical compositions and diary entries (wonderful costume as art installation by Magdalena D?browska and Miodrag Guberinic), Milo, wearing only her knickers and a voluminously teased updo, shows us what life was like for the young Miss Mozart. On the one hand, she was fortunate. She had a fierce passion for music that her father encouraged her to indulge. On the other hand, prodigy or no prodigy, the only instrument allowed to her was the harpsichord — the organ and any orchestral instruments being deemed inappropriate for a lady.
It was all going swimmingly, Nannerl tells us, alternating between moody, oftentimes humorous monologue and sardonically impressionistic snippets of dialogue between her and her old-fashioned parents. That is, it was all peachy until "the shit eater" was born. Yup – you read that right. The great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart here in the hands of Milo and out of the mouth of Nannerl is reduced to a modern day epithet. Fortunately, rather than simply pit sibling again sibling in shallow enmity and colorful language, Milo weaves a love/hate/respect/envy story for Nannerl to tell brimming with relatable frustration for a life not fully lived.
Once again as Milo tells it, on the one hand Nannerl was fortunate. She and ‘Wolfie’ as she called him (sounding like Volfie with the vague and at times overly garbled Austrian accent Milo employs) loved each other quite deeply and enjoyed playing, touring together as young musicians and expanding their musical talents in tandem. But it’s the other hand that The Other Mozart is most concerned with and it’s by far the larger hand.
As Nannerl continues recounting the moments that made up her life, the fortune quickly slips from her hands into her brother’s. It's Wolfie their father taps to be the genius despite Nannerl’s more favorable notices on many of their tours. It’s Wolfie who’s allowed to continue touring while Nannerl must give up music and focus on learning to become a housewife so her family can marry her off. It’s Nannerl who must wed out of arrangement while her impetuous brother takes a wife of his choosing. Its Wolfie’s compositions that the world falls in love with while Nannerl’s never enjoy an audience. And on and on.
As Nannerl’s opportunities and freedom dissipate, director Isaac Byrne pulls tighter and tighter on the movement reins. Whereas a musically engaged Nannerl prances around on the dress-covered stage happily relaying her time playing and mocking her parents and brother for us, a creatively stifled Nannerl circles closer and closer into the center of the dress, an unhappy edge creeping into her impressions of her family. Bryne’s final piece of staging that cages Nannerl into the large dress in literal and metaphoric fashion is at once sadly beautiful and enraging. And annoyingly, it’s only one of a handful of scenes fully visible from start to finish for everyone in the audience. Bryne has Milo spend an inordinate amount of time sitting on the stage. She picks up letters to read from the overflowing dress, she fiddles with teacups, she plops down in anger. And while Milo is never completely out of sight for long, those of us not in the first row and obstructed by the heads of those in front of us find ourselves shifting and craning in vain to see what exactly is going on.
However, this is a show about musicians, so what of the music? Regrettably, none of Nannerl’s compositions remain. Instead, the show features sound bites from Wolfgang Mozart’s pieces as well as those of Marianna Martines (a female composer who inspired Nannerl). Sound designer Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen, composers with the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, also provide some new music. The music itself is undoubtedly beautiful, but watching the heartbreak of a muzzled musician punctuated by others’ music as recorded sound seems to simply further plunge the knife into poor ignored Nannerl. Admittedly it’s a tricky issue, but Milo herself is a classically trained musician who perhaps could have lessened some of the need for the canned music by playing live during the show.
Even at only 75 minutes, this visually arresting infotainment show at times drags under the weight of both its timeline and its message. A scene where Wolfgang brings his bride home to meet the family (giving Milo the opportunity to do her impression of the weirdly impish genius) drags in its silliness. The number of times Nannerl reacts to Mozart’s burgeoning success and accolades could also have used some tightening.
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Message-wise, we get that she was hard done by as a woman. This is empathetically infuriating enough for us without the cloying addition of Nannerl rhyming off misogynist quotes from the likes of famous thinkers such as Rousseau and Kant as a kind of accusational theater.
But even with these flaws, The Other Mozart is a show worthy of attention both for its focus on one woman’s past and for how it shines a spotlight on women today. It’s impossible to talk of this show without thinking about how far we’ve come as a gender-equal society. Just one look at the pop charts tells you everything you need to know about woman and music these days. I’m talking to you, Taylor Swift and Adele! That change didn’t come easy, nor was it handed over. By highlighting what was, Milo lets us celebrate what is and encourages us to work hard to make what comes even better.
Who knows, maybe Falco will reunite and record a follow-up to their 1985 hit. After all, Rock Me Nannerl has kind of a nice ring to it, no?
The Other Mozart continues to January 9 at MATCH Box 3, 3400 Main. For tickets, contact lottentertainmentpresents.com or call 713- 521-4533 or visit matchouston.org/events/other-mozart. $45.