The Other Mozart
written by Sylvia Milo and acted by Julia Rosa Stöckl
at the HERE Arts Center, NYC, June 22 – July 12
Performed by Julia Rosa Stöckl Sun, June 22 at 4 pm; Sat, June 28 at 4 pm; Sun, June 29 at 8:30 pm; Sat, July 5 at 4 pm; Sun, July 6 at 8:30 pm; and Sat, July 12 at 4 pm.
Sylvia Milo, Project Creator, Writer, Actress
Director – Isaac Byrne
Composer, Sound Designer – Nathan Davis
Composer – Phyllis Chen
Costume Designer (the dress) – Magdalena Dąbrowska
Costume Designer (panier/corset sculpture) – Miodrag Guberinic
Period Style Choreographer – Janice Orlandi
Lighting Designer – Joshua Rose
Hairstylist – Courtney Bednarowski
Original concept first developed by Sylvia Milo and Anna Sroka
Six of the performances in the summer run of Sylvia Milo’s The Other Mozart were performed by the Austrian actress, Julia Rosa Stöckl. It was fascinating in itself to see the play performed by an artist other than the author, and above all by a countrywoman of Nannerl Mozart herself. As at the other performances the house was almost sold out, and Ms. Stöckl received a resounding ovation for her elegant and psychologically penetrating performance.
Sylvia Milo’s The Other Mozart, a rich one-woman play she has conceived, written, and performs, about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sister Anna Maria, or Nannerl, as she was known in the family, is one of the most remarkable theatrical presentations I saw over the past season. Today it is easiest to identify her as “Mozart’s sister,” since even specialists know her mainly as one of the composer’s closest confidantes and correspondents. They shared parents, provincial Salzburg, travels, musical gifts, and scatological humor. While “Wolfi,” as she calls him, went to Vienna to seek his fortune in the odd limbo between musical servant, entrepreneur, and stable employment, at least in a preliminary form—which is what was available to him at the time, she accepted the conventional prescriptions of her father. A child prodigy at the keyboard, her musical scope became severely limited once she reached marriageable age. Music became an ornament rather than a profession for her; she had to learn housekeeping—all to attract a husband. At the late age of thirty-three, she was finally married to a husband chosen for her by father Leopold and lost whatever was left of her continually diminishing self-determination.
Obviously a play about Nannerl will also feature Wolfi to a considerable extent, and creative works based on prominent musical figures, I have found, is dangerous. Peter Schaffer’s pastiche of Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri certainly does little to raise the level of the endless flow of novels, plays, and films about the great composers. (Richard Wagner, oddly enough, proved an exception, perhaps because he was for Germans a national figure like Custer or Lincoln, or perhaps because he was so theatrical in life.) Sylvia Milo has brought off a tour de force in creating such an absorbing, intelligent, and sure-footed entertainment on such a subject.
Wolfgang, however large he may loom in the play, remains secondary to Nannerl’s narrative perspective and feelings. He appears at second hand, filtered by her perception, reflected in the mirror she holds up to the audience. In this mirror we hear things rather than see them: we hear Wolfi as a small child, forcing his way to the keyboard by letting out a big “waaah” (at an older age Nannerl was told that she’d ruin her technique, because her fingers were too small); we hear his fart and shit jokes (a source of amusement to Nannerl); we hear his exchanges with Konstanze, when, leaving their first baby with a wet nurse, they travel to Salzburg to meet the family (a source of irritation and astonishment to all). After the family go their separate ways, Wolfgang back to Vienna, never to return to Salzburg, Nannerl up into the mountain town of Sankt Gilgen to her virtual incarceration with her husband, the Reichsfreiherr Johann Baptist Berchtold zu Sonnenburg, we hear less from Wolfgang directly, and more of his struggles in Vienna, professional and financial. The expectation was that Wolfgang would enjoy his due success in Vienna and that he would eventually bring his family there. This was slow coming, and just as he almost had it in his hand, he died. Even before this the family dissolved. Leopold died. The distances between Salzburg, Vienna, and Sankt Gilgen proved too great for Nannerl to visit Wolfgang or for her even to visit one of her children, who was sent to Salzburg.
What a contrast from the beginning of her life! While she was still a child or early adolescent, she could travel through Europe as a prodigy with Leopold and Wolfgang—and her considerable talents at the keyboard met with serious recognition. She could visit cultured cities, study the fashions and adopt them, and enjoy the limelight as a virtuosa. That came to an end when she turned eighteen, and from then on she could only participate through the letters she received from Wolfgang, who took over as the family genius.
One of the many impressive aspects of Sylvia Milo’s play is the sense of geographical space it conveys. When the young prodigies were touring with their father, who seemed to have a knack as an impresario, Europe barely seemed large enough for them, but when Nannerl reaches marriageable age, her world shrank pitifully. Even Munich was too far away, and so was Vienna. Eventually she heads off to Sankt Gilgen with her husband and a clavichord, which is kept in a small, unheated back room, where the strings broke, and Nannerl had to play to herself in silence.
My account may sound a trifle pathetic, but that is not the way Milo portrays her. Milo’s Nannerl is a woman of spirit, dignity, and self-awareness in relation to her talents, and the tone she strikes is just the right mixture of marzipan and vinegar. Her fondness and admiration for her brother are sincere, although balanced by sisterly resentment. He remains a raucous “little shit-eater.”
When the lights first come up on Nannerl, she is surrounded by an enormous white dress. Her paleness, her piled whitish-blonde Perücke, and the expansive surf of her skirts around her give her the semblance of a ghost. At first there is no temporal specificity, only the aspect of eighteenth-century fashions, most likely long passed by. Critical praise quoted by Nannerl give us a flash of her playing at the age of six, then at twelve. She is called a new Saint Cecilia. She lives in Vienna and travels to Paris, Munich, London, Florence, Venice, and Rome. Then she bursts the bubble. The praise was actually for her brother, Wolfgang. But she can quote an Augsburg critic on her playing at eleven: “…Imagine an eleven-year-old girl, performing the most difficult sonatas and concertos of the greatest composers, on the harpsichord or fortepiano, with precision, with incredible lightness, with impeccable taste. It was a source of wonder to many.”
Milo’s text expands in short sentences loosely arranged in narrative clusters, accompanied by her music on a toy piano, a music box, and unearthly sounds, mostly not Wolfgang’s, created by ICE composers Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis. The ghostly fluidity of the language, in which themes like Saint Cecilia, float by in recurrence, is most beautifully timed and shaped. It is like some dreamy recollection of a distant time. The folds of Nannerl’s skirts hold numerous memorabilia, letters, and scores. She can reach for them and contemplate them, as their moments emerge from the past and disappear. The rich lighting effects by Joshua Rose enhance this feeling of shifting perspectives in time. Nannerl herself, with her exotic skirts, bodice, corset, and hair seems distant in relation to us, even indeterminate, as if she were speaking to use from some sort of limbo. On the other hand, as we listen to her reminiscences our relationship to her becomes direct and intimate. Nannerl, after all, as a Mozart, does not stand on ceremony.
The costumes and wig, which are both seductive and disturbing, (Magdalena Dąbrowska, Miodrag Guberinic, Courtney Bednarowski), the eloquent lighting (Joshua Rose), the sophisticated and haunting score, the sureness of the direction (Isaac Byrne) all show that The Other Mozart is the work of a carefully chosen and finely coordinated team. Nonetheless, the imagination behind this unique theater work is Sylvia Milo’s, who also credits her compatriot, Anna Sroka, as a collaborator in developing the original idea.
The longer run at the HERE Arts Center after an eight to nine months break, during which Ms. Milo made some revisions and brought the show up to an even higher level. Julia Rosa Stöckl made this revised text very much her own. She made us especially conscious of Nannerl’s state of mind and behavior at each stage of her life: the exasperated little girl overshadowed by her brilliant—and insistent—brother, the excitement and variety of her life as a young teenager on tour with her musical family, her frustration as her parents began to insist on the conventions of behavior for a marriageable young woman, her disgust at Wolfi’s impossibly vulgar wife and his even more vulgar behavior with her at the family table, the chill of her virtual imprisonment at Sankt Gilgen, and so forth. Ms. Stöckl marked a subtle but clear division between the phases of Nannerl’s psychological development. She delivered this witty, probing exploration of Nannerl’s shrinking boundaries with a beautifully produced and focused voice. She can speak English with almost no traceable accent, and, apart from a few German phrases, she avoided using an accent to give an Austrian coloring to the performance. Austrian character was abundantly present in her manner, in Nannerl’s psychology as she portrayed it, and in the Salzburgian perspective of the story, even as she travels over Europe. Munich remains Munich, and Vienna Vienna—the great musical city she aspired to without fulfilment. Julia Rosa Stöckl’s performance both witty and deeply affecting, sharp but also gentle. Her Nannerl could indulge in an infatuated Schwärmerei for the extreme fashions of the Bavarian capital and in a trice relish a fart joke or honor her brother with scatological epithets. Her handling of the elaborate, meticulously choreographed movement in the show was impressive. Any 75-minute solo play is a virtuoso turn, especially one as rich and mult-faceted as The Other Mozart, and Julia Rosa Stöckl succeeded brilliantly in bringing it off.
The HERE Arts Center offered some significant technical advantages over the atmospheric Cherry Lane Theater, above all a superior sound system, so that the very beautiful and absorbing score by Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen—an integral, important part of the production—could be heard to full advantage.