Interview: Sylvia Milo of THE OTHER MOZART

By: May. 22, 2015

They wear hoop skirts in Hamilton. They wear hoop skirts in The King and I. And there's another contender this awards season with a hoop skirt. A much smaller show, but a much larger skirt. It's The Other Mozart, which received Drama Desk and Off Broadway Alliance nominations this year and is playing through May 30 at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village.

The Other Mozart, written and performed by Sylvia Milo, is a revealing biography of Maria Anna Mozart, older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Nannerl, as she was known, was also a virtuoso musician and a composer, and her stage father Leopold took both her and little Wolfie around Europe to perform when they were young children. But eventually she was left home in Salzburg, to concentrate on the domestic arts; a musical career would be a liability for her marriage prospects. For financial reasons Nannerl was forbidden from marrying the man she fell in love with; instead, in her 30s, she married a twice-widowed father of five and had to go live with him and her stepchildren outside the city.

Ah, but that skirt... It constitutes not just a costume for Nannerl but the set of The Other Mozart too. The 18-foot-diameter white skirt is spread out on the stage, with papers representing Nannerl's music, reviews and letters strewn over it. The actress, attired in pantaloons, romps around on and in the skirt, retrieving and placing various props in its billows and pockets. Once Nannerl is a mature woman, she puts on the skirt--and also fits herself into the outsize corset that's on top of, rather than beneath, the skirt, a blatant metaphor for Nannerl's constricted life and talent.

The Other Mozart features both original music and selections by Mozart (the brother; none of Nannerl's compositions survived). Its sound design is nominated for a Drama Desk Award, and Milo was nominated for an Off Broadway Alliance Award for best solo performance. Her remaining shows at the Players are May 23 and 30. (Another actress, Gudrun Buhler, will play Nannerl on May 28.) But Milo has been performing the play all around the country, and in Europe, since 2013. It's been seen at the New Orleans Fringe Festival, the Berkshire Fringe in Massachusetts, the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., Connecticut's Chekhov International Theatre Festival, the Kingston (NY) Festival of the Arts and venues in Florida and California. In New York it was featured in the 2013 All for One Festival at the Cherry Lane before its longer engagement at HERE in Soho last June and July. Then it returned to NYC in March for the three-month run at the Players. Milo spoke with BroadwayWorld about the creation of The Other Mozart and its unique design elements.

How did this all begin, that you decided to tell the story of Nannerl Mozart?
In 2006 I was in Vienna for a big celebration of Wolfgang's 250th birthday. I love Wolfgang, so I met with my mother over there, and we had a little trip, just seeing Vienna from the eyes of Mozart, looking at all the places that are still there--the performance spaces, concert halls, and his apartment is a museum. Inside the apartment there was a small portrait of the Mozart family. In it, Nannerl is seated by a keyboard with Wolfgang, their hands intertwined. She's already in her 20s, and she has this huge, huge hairdo that drew my attention. The picture was tiny, but the image of this woman at the keyboard with Amadeus with this stunning hair... I'd grown up as a pianist and a violinist, and I'd never really had those examples of women creating music history, so I was curious to find out who is this. I was really stunned that there was a sister, and obviously she must have been promoted as a musician if the portrait is such.
I started digging about a bit, trying to find out what was her story, while I was still in Vienna. The story is such an incredible [one], from her being a child prodigy, her touring with him--I'd never heard about that--and then later, how tragic her life outside the music world became, as well. I followed that trip right after with Salzburg, so I could dig in a little more. I tried to look for sources right away, and the thing that was available in English were the letters of the family. There was no book on her in English.
So that's where it started. I was really moved just for the pure reason that there was a sister and she was this incredible musician and we don't know about it. It took me a while to have the right team, and the research took a while.

When and where was the first performance?
This version, March two years ago in Alabama. The Smith Museum of Fine Art in Auburn. My husband, Nathan Davis, is the sound designer and one of two composers on this project. He's from Auburn, Alabama, and he had a solo show scheduled at the museum. The play was almost ready, so we thought, Why don't we introduce them to this as well?
There was a first attempt, which I performed at the United Solo Festival [in 2011], but now this is re-envisioned, and a lot of the team changed as well.

How did you land on this idea for a voluminous dress that would also be scenery?
I started the project in Warsaw, Poland--I'm from there--and I found a director there, Anna Sroka. I credit her with the set concept; she came up with the dress idea, and she introduced me to the designer, Magdalena Dabrowska. It had to be really large--lavish and big--but it has to fit into a suitcase small enough that we could take it internationally. It has to be small enough and light enough to travel by air. Magdalena figured out the incredible concept: The dress actually detaches into three different circles and folds flat but can be thrown in the air to create volume for the dress.
We were brainstorming different ideas of how and what this project could be...about what does it mean in terms of history, women, the times, and what the clothes were like, what they felt like for women. There's the corset, but then there are those big, wide dresses. She [Dabrowska] took it to this extreme--the lavishness and the beauty of it, and at the same time the weight of it and the impracticality of it. It became the world of Nannerl; this is where she lived, within the parameters of this dress. She appears in it, and she exists in it. The props are within, and all the places she talks about are mapped out on the dress. It's like a plaything at the beginning, but when she goes inside of it, it's a jail. The director, Isaac Byrne, later added the concept of the cage corset--which is made by Miodrag Guberinic, a New York City designer.

At the Mozart Wohnhaus in Salzburg, Austria, Sylvia Milo
stands in her
Other Mozart costume right next to a harpsi-
chord that was actually played by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

You've done the play a few times in Salzburg, Mozart's hometown, right?
I came back to Salzburg, researching some more, and I went to Sankt Gilgen, which is where she [lived after getting] married. I just wanted to visit the place and see what she saw, what she experienced. It was about a year after they opened the house as a museum, and the director of the museum invited me to come perform the play whenever it's ready. They'd remodeled the house quite a bit; they lifted the roof up, and they added a performance space in the attic.
So we took him up on this invitation two years ago. That was the first performance in Austria. Then we came back a few months later, again for a show in the attic. At the same time we added a show in Salzburg, by invitation of the Mozarteum foundation, at the Mozart Wohnhaus--the Mozart apartments. In the room where they used to play music. A few months later, I was again back with it, at the invitation of Mozarteum University. One of the professors saw the performance [at the Mozart Wohnhaus], and this professor organized a whole conference on Nannerl Mozart last October, because of the show. It was the gender studies as well as the music department; they had speakers, and it culminated with the performance, at a historic space where Mozart used to perform.

What is it like when you perform where Nannerl actually performed?
Emotionally I'm very affected by that. Especially at the Mozart Wohnhaus--the room that she probably felt pretty happy in, playing the music with many people there. For me that was a very powerful performance.

And in January you're taking the show to Vienna?
Yes. To that museum I first discovered Nannerl at.

Any plans to take The Other Mozart to your home country?
Not yet. I need to translate it to Polish.

Has audience reaction varied among the different places you've performed?
American audiences are so giving. They are very much with you, and they let you know: They laugh out loud, they gasp, they comment here and there. Especially in New York it's like this. In the South as well--Charleston and New Orleans and Alabama--we had incredible audiences who expressed themselves very much. I've done it in Austria and Germany and Estonia, and people are very quiet during the performance. That's just the culture. The first time I performed in Austria, everybody was so quiet, I felt that they hated it, but at the very end they clapped so loudly, I was shocked. That's what it is: It's very quiet, but afterward the applause goes on for a really long time.
People are really moved by the show. I get beautiful reactions from people walking up to me after the show, and even thanking me for bringing the story to life. I think--and what I hear from people is--it's a very important story to be known.

Has the content of your play been challenged at all by any music pedants?
It hasn't, which is really wonderful. Last summer when we did the run at HERE Arts Center, we had all these panels with women artists, including women composers--we had Phyllis Chen, who is one of our composers, and Annie Gosfield and Du Yun and Pauline Oliveros, who is a big name in the world of experimental music. All these women composers, I did ask [them] afterward: Was there anything you can help me with, was I wrong in anything? And they said no. It seems to resonate with them in a truthful way. It confirmed some of the things that I imagined to be. That was a relief.
There was one reviewer [not in New York] who dismissed it quite a bit. He said, obviously she wasn't talented enough, and there was no story. That made me very angry, but at the same time made me look at it from this perspective, to say: Okay, some people may want to dismiss this story so simply. Why don't I add some more to the text about what were the realities of the times and what Nannerl was faced with, so people cannot dismiss this so easily.

Your hair is teased into a super-high bouffant for the play. Why not wear a wig?
We don't have many of Nannerl's letters--not many survived. But in one of them she writes about her hair, how she's sitting writing to Amadeus with an erection on her head, how she's afraid that she's going to burn her hair. It's funny nowadays, but this was the letter she was writing when she was getting ready for this portrait, which inspired me to look a little further. So I thought I need to give the hair its proper due. I found this incredible stylist Courtney Bednarowski, who has been on this project from the beginning. She does it so beautifully, it's a joy to have it. I keep it for a few days after [each performance].

Top two photos by Charlotte Dobre; Salzburg photo by Tara Linke