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"The Other Mozart" Comes to the Morris Museum's Bickford Theatre


By Christopher Benincasa, JerseyArts.com

originally published: 10/16/2019

"The Other Mozart" Comes to the Morris Museum's Bickford Theatre

We recently spoke with the two women behind the award-winning play that The New York Times called “strikingly beautiful” – “The Other Mozart.” Created and performed by Sylvia Milo, “The Other Mozart” tells the true story of Maria Anna Mozart (nicknamed Nannerl), a keyboard virtuoso and composer who performed throughout Europe with her brother (Wolfgang Amadeus) to equal acclaim. However, unlike her famous brother, her work and her story were lost to history.

With no surviving compositions from Nannerl Mozart, it was up to pianist and composer Phyllis Chen to create an original score in her signature style, using toy pianos, music boxes and other unusual instruments. “The Other Mozart” begins its three-performance run at the Morris Museum’s Bickford Theatre this Friday.

Jersey Arts: So, the “other Mozart” of the title is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's older sister Maria Anna, who went by Nannerl. Sylvia, you wrote the play, and star in the play. How did you begin this project?

Sylvia Milo: I grew up as a classical musician, and in my repertoire there were never any women, even in music history classes – women were not mentioned. So, I was traveling to Vienna for a big Mozart festival, and I saw a portrait of the Mozart family. In this family portrait, there is Wolfgang seated at the keyboard next to a woman, and they are playing together. And it drew my attention. I had never heard that Mozart had a sister. And we hear his story – such a present story in society – about his genius, but Nannerl isn’t mentioned anywhere. The movie Amadeus didn't have her either. And it just really shook me up – that there was a woman, his sister, raised in the same family, educated in the same way, who performed throughout Europe with him. There were two child prodigies in this family, both Wolfgang and Nannerl. And we don't know anything about her. And from the moment I found out about her there in Vienna, it basically became my quest to tell the story.

 



 
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JA: I didn’t know anything about her either, until I learned about your play. What are the odds of two musical prodigies emerging in one family?

Phyllis Chen: I can't think of any other sibling prodigies off the top of my head, but I think what's kind of notable is that the Mozarts were both taught by their father Leopold. While he did educate them both, in his mind, he must have always planned on Nannerl’s musical career coming to an end when she turned 18. But I say this only in hindsight. I’ve been a keyboard player and a pianist my whole life, but I didn’t know about Nannerl until Silvia approached me about this project.

 

JA: I'm sure most people are not aware that Wolfgang and Nannerl toured together – almost like The Jackson 5.

SM: Right, and Janet Jackson was also overlooked for a long time.

"The Other Mozart" Comes to the Morris Museum's Bickford Theatre

JA: So, they toured together as a very popular child prodigy act – until Nannerl turned 18. Why did she have to stop at age 18?

SM: Well, Mozart's family was not an aristocratic family. We have this image of them dressed up in these beautiful clothes, but these were middle-class people. So, it was important for Nannerl to marry well, just for her own financial safety.



 
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There's a letter by their father urging Wolfgang to be responsible and get a position at the court in Vienna because his sister's future depended on it. She either had to marry well or work at somebody's home in domestic service – or possibly end up destitute. It was a different world. And for a little girl to perform, that was considered a beautiful thing – not so for a grown woman. For her, to turn 18 and be of marriageable age, displaying herself in this “lewd” manner, performing for money, would have been unthinkable because she would have lost all her marriage prospects.

 

JA: Researching Nannerl was a real challenge for you because there is next to no information out there to find. Most of it came from letters that, ironically, she is largely responsible for preserving.

SM: The letters really are the main source, yes – I think about 1,500 of them! And, yes, we only have them because Nannerl kept them. When the family was divided – the women stayed at home, and the men were traveling – the men didn't keep the letters. So, we don't have all of Nannerl's letters, but we have all the replies to her letters. But there are still many, many letters by her hand as well. And they gave me an understanding of her, and of the family structure and their relationships, and their dreams and their hopes. Everything was really clear in these letters. It’s really incredible that we have them.

I was basically just trying to find out what happened. Why couldn't she succeed? Why don't we have two Mozarts?

 

"The Other Mozart" Comes to the Morris Museum's Bickford TheatreJA: On top of that, we have no compositions from her – even though we know she wrote a lot of music. Phyllis, how did you imagine your way through this project and come up with music that would represent Nannerl’s?

PC: When you think about it like that, like putting a fictional voice to a real person, it seems that it could be something that could feel very intimidating. But Sylvia really gave me the sense that I should write from the imagination and write something like a "what if?" or a "what could be?", and not to try to mimic anything of the period necessarily, but something that I thought had a very intimate voice for her. Aside from that, I was just really responding intuitively to try to find something that I thought was private and beautiful, instead of trying to imitate something from the period.

 

JA: And could you describe what you came up with? It’s probably not what people would expect in a play about the Mozarts. You are a pianist and a composer, but one of your specialties it playing toy piano.



 
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PC: Right. I really love working with found objects, miniature instruments, toy instruments, objects that become instruments through exploration. Nathan Davis was the other composer on this project, and he has his own distinctive style, but we have an overlapping interest in things. But for this piece, I'd say that the theme that I wrote for it has a little bit of a melancholic quality to it. And the theme itself – I wanted it to float, to feel a little bit ethereal, like it's not so solid, but comes and goes almost like a faint idea.

The theme of Nannerl is heard for the first time cranked on a miniature music box that Sylvia plays on stage. We also used a clavichord of mine. And the piece also included a bunch of other found elements that Nathan worked on as well, such as tea cups and fans – object-driven sound sources for the piece.

"The Other Mozart" Comes to the Morris Museum's Bickford Theatre

JA: In an interview, Nathan Davis described the story of Nannerl as a tragedy – a tragedy that we didn't get to hear her compositions, hear her music.

PC: I agree. The thing is, I'm sure there are others like Nannerl. And it makes you think of the many others who perhaps didn't even get as far as she did, that we never heard from at all. And that’s such a loss for all of us.

SM: And the amazing thing is that she actually was a lucky one. Most women didn't have the chance to receive a musical education. But even in Nannerl’s case, there were silly, unfair rules. For example, Nannerl wasn’t allowed to play the violin. That was considered improper for women. The obstacles for women composers were so big – they weren’t allowed to play certain instruments! So, they couldn't understand the workings of them, and so they couldn’t write for an orchestra. And yet Nannerl was able to succeed up until she turned 18. But to do all that only to be shut down at that age, after experiencing the possibility – yes, that is so tragic.

 

JA: Rediscovering the art of women throughout history has become a major project around the world. This play, the story of Nannerl Mozart, seems so emblematic of that movement.

SM: The amazing thing is that, right now, there are so many women composers who are so incredible – and Phyllis is one of them. New music concerts are full of compositions by women. Unfortunately, most of the classical concerts are not, mostly because so many women were not able to compose. But now, people are actually seeking out this material. Audiences are hungry for it.

"The Other Mozart" Comes to the Morris Museum's Bickford Theatre

PC: There is so much support for female voices in the arts now, but I think it's another thing to then go back and try to see how we can take a look at the parts of history that we've missed. And I think that's what “The Other Mozart” really taps into. It is timely to us right now, but it's also asking us to rethink the way that we've thought about some of the music that we've considered masterpieces in our history.

In my life in the music world, sometimes I did hear comments like, "Don't bring attention to yourself that you're a female composer." But I feel like over the last decade we've tipped over into finally not being so afraid to talk about that elephant in the room. And not just for women, but for all marginalized voices. I really appreciate this play because, for me, it just provokes so many questions – not just about Nannerl, but somebody else that might have been in a similar position or place.

SM: What people tell me sometimes after shows is that they go out with their friends, and they talk about it. Then, they think about it for days because it triggers something that is important – these forgotten voices. We know there are so many. This play asks “What if?” – what if we hadn't made up a set of rules that made it impossible for so many people, since the beginning of time, to contribute?




About the author: Christopher Benincasa is an Emmy Award-winning arts and culture journalist. He produced content for NJ PBS for a decade before co-founding PCK Media. Christopher currently works as a freelance producer, video editor, writer, and communications specialist for a diverse set of commercial, non-profit, and government clients. His work has been featured on various PBS stations, and in American Abstract Artists Journal, The Structurist, Paterson Literary Review, and JerseyArts.com.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.




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