Sylvia Milo wrote and stars in The Other Mozart, directed by Isaac Byrne, at HERE Arts Center.
(© Charlotte Dobre)
By: Eric Grunin
is simple and familiar: an actor presents herself as an historical figure, and
tells us her life story. In this case, it's author-performer Sylvia Milo as
Maria Anna Mozart, sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, known to friends and
family as Nannerl.
is interesting beyond the light it sheds on her brother's achievements. Older
by four years, Nannerl preceded Wolfgang as a famous child prodigy. She
concertized on the harpsichord for the amusement of the aristocracy, received
glowing notices, and when her brother's talent manifested they performed
together, like Yehudi and Hepzibah Menuhin--or Karen and Richard Carpenter.
Nannerl's parents halted her public appearances when she reached the age of
eighteen, feeling that to continue would have risked her reputation, and thus
the possibility of a good marriage. An old story, and one that you almost
assume will slip into cliché; yet the beautiful and unusual thing about how Milo conveys it is her refusal of anachronism. She doesn't agree with Nannerl's parents,
but she doesn't fault them for their concerns. (They did manage to match her up
with a Baron, after all.) More importantly, while giving full weight to
Nannerl's frustration, Milo pointedly refuses to suggest that Nannerl would
have been a composer whose talent matched her brother. Instead the point is
quietly but firmly made that even if she had been a very minor talent--a
Michael Haydn, rather than a Franz Joseph Haydn--she still deserved the opportunity,
and we are the lesser for the lack.
case, what we get instead of empty speculation is much more interesting, a
lively portrait of an 18th Century family from the Austrian provinces. (Salzburg was tiny, maybe 14,000 people, which is small enough that everyone would know
everyone, more or less.) And we watch this family, the Mozarts, struggling to
make the most of a rare chance at social mobility, always running the risk that
a single small mistake--the wrong word to the wrong royal, or a cold left unattended--could
lead to ruin, not just for you but for your entire family.
Leopold, violinist and composer, is the risk-taker, while mother Anna Maria is
cautious, always reminding Nannerl that all her future happiness depends on
finding a good husband. Nannerl, stuck at home after being forced into early
retirement, viewing her brother's burgeoning success only through the keyhole
of their correspondence. And finally Wolfgang Amadeus himself, presented here
as we have met him in his letters (or in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus), a
preternaturally gifted and somewhat potty-mouthed exhibitionist, who eventually
becomes a mature and occasionally successful composer, with a wife and a child
and too little attention to spare for his sister.
storyteller holds it all together with virtues exactly those of a Mozart
sonata: more than merely poise and elegance, there is also a sharp intellect,
with enough surprising and witty digression to keep it from routine. And not
only is there a deliberate lack of sturm und drang, the essence, the
beating heart of this script is the author's absolute trust that the truth of
these people's lives does not need exaggeration. To this she adds compassion
for all the people whose story she is telling, even when they make mistakes.
All this goes a long way towards keeping us engaged.
be a missed opportunity here, in that no reference is made to other women performers
of Nannerl's generation. Josepha Auernhammer and Barbara Ployer both studied
with Wolfgang Amadeus, and he wrote concerti for Ployer, Victoire Jenamy, and
Maria Therese von Paradis. Nannerl knew of these women, they concertized much
as she had, and some were even published composers, but they were not shunted
off the stage prematurely. Did Nannerl leave us her reaction?
too much weight is given to Wolfgang's early efforts at composition, as if he
was turning out masterpieces from birth. It's a common misconception, but actually
his first piece of lasting significance was composed when he was twenty-one,
the Piano Concerto in E-flat K.271, written for the aforementioned Jenamy. (In
comparison, Mendelssohn was doing immortal work at sixteen, and Schubert wrote Erlkönig
and Heidenröslein at eighteen.)
performer, Milo benefits hugely from her deep insight into the material, she
moved well, and it was a pleasure for once to hear Nannerl pronounced
correctly (it's an Austrian thing). But director Isaac Byrne has not solved some
technical problems. Milo is very self-contained as an actor, and Nannerl's strong
feelings, whether of joy or despair, seldom come over the footlights. The
opening minute or two was delivered very slowly, as if she needed time to warm
up. She was not helped by her high coiffure loosening a bit too much too soon, or
by the enormous dress. This gorgeous construction by Magdalena Dabrowska spans
the whole playing space, more a set piece than a garment. It was impressive to
look at, but after a while there was nothing more to see, and you had an hour
to wonder how it would look when worn. Then once she had finally got it on, Milo's limited ability to move was apparently a metaphor for Nannerl's limited choices; but
then the actor did not convey how Nannerl felt about it.
incidental music by Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen was functional but cold, and unfortunately
included a recurring harpsichord cue that sounded exactly like five seconds from
are quibbles. Anyone with even a modest liking for the music of Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart will enjoy this sweet but thoughtful piece, and all but the most
jaded musicologist will find it worth their while. Playwrights should see it
too, as an example of how political and social points can be set into place
clearly, lovingly, and without mallets.
The Other Mozart (through July 12, 2014)
Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue (at Dominick St.), Manhattan
For tickets, call (866)
811-4111 or visit ovationtix.com
time: One hour and 15 minutes, no intermission.