The Other Mozart

Jody Christopherson, photo by Kacey Anisa

Jody Christopherson, photo by Kacey Anisa

As I have previously mentioned, when I was in middle school, I competed for three years running in the Individual Performance category of National History Day, researching, writing, staging, and performing one-woman shows about influential (i.e. badass) women in history. As the years passed, my choice of subjects became increasingly more obscure (from Eleanor Roosevelt to Berthe Morisot to Harper Lee), and while the judges had a harder time seeing the relevance in these lesser lauded women, I became an ever-louder champion of them.

I still carry these women with me, and it is always a delight to find a fellow theater maker who shares the same mission, and contributes another leading lady to my historical collection. Sylvia Milo has done exactly that, with her production of The Other Mozart, telling the story of Maria Anna (Nannerl) Mozart, the older sister of the one and only Wolfgang Amadeus.

Performed in a riveting 75 minutes by one actress (the cast rotates between Milo herself, Samantha Hoefer, Daniela Galli and Jody Christopherson), there was a certain tenderness cultivated in the theater from the outset with the house manager’s speech about histories living in listeners and audiences carrying stories, as if we had all come to pay our respects to Nannerl in a special Greenwich Village ritual. (The performance I attended just so happened to be on the 187th anniversary of Nannerl’s death, so perhaps there was something in the air.)

Once the actress — Jody Christopherson, on the day I attended — emerges from the blackout at the top of the show, her first word is “Imagine.” The Other Mozart relies on your imagination, to fill in the characters and conversations and cities glimpsed in the Mozart family’s whirlwind tour of Europe, effortlessly evoked by Christopherson’s graceful, winsome storytelling. The set consists of an enormous petticoat, with a corset perched in the middle like an empty antique birdcage. Letters and compositions are strewn across the skirt, and we later learn that treasured props are tucked into its flounces and folds. My favorite reveal from the 18-foot skirt was a powder set, which Christopherson fluffed into a frenzy of fine mist, describing Vienna one spring: “Perfume in the air – that season: lavender. Everything is lavender! All the hats, feathers, shoes, dresses, even hair, even hair is lavender!” You could almost smell it, watching the clouds disperse into the audience.

For her costume, Christopherson wore an elaborate set of white underthings: bloomers, a corset, and a lace undershirt with bell sleeves, which allowed her to physically enact her story essentially unhindered. Her undressed self stood in stark contrast to her tower of hair, modeled after a fashion statement Nannerl made at a Carnival ball in Munich, and later established as her signature look back home in Salzburg. As Nannerl says, “I remake all of my dresses into Munich fashions, my hair grows taller and taller, sacrificing my walking balance – so I introduce the walking-stick. Salzburg ladies follow: dresses, hair, sticks – the hair in all of Salzburg becomes so tall they have to raise the roofs of carriages – no lady can sit upright in them. I am the talk of the town.”

This juxtaposition of hair and underwear was clearly much more than a fashion statement. The audience was privy to Nannerl’s intimate, personal confessions throughout this piece, including her longing to be accepted by society just as she was: a musical prodigy shoved into the uniform of conventional womanhood within a patriarchal society. This symbolism becomes quite literal when Nannerl unveils her eventual marriage to Baron von Berchtold zu Sonnenburg while strapping herself in to the birdcage corset, accompanied by a soundtrack of gears creaking and snapping into place.

Appearances were also carefully observed during the Mozart family’s introduction to the noble classes, through a European tour that Nannerl and Wolfgang’s father arranged. Nannerl explains, “We look like we are nobility. Papa buys us all beautiful clothes that we cannot afford, to present us well, so that we may be treated like nobility.” Given the detailed history of this family’s financial woes, despite Wolfgang and Nannerl’s musical prodigy, I kept coming back to the idea of how persistent the trope of the starving artist has become in Western culture. In elite circles, gifted artists represent the circus pet, and aping the fashion of the nobility grants access to circles that would otherwise find them or their work too strange. There remains such a fine line between the cultishness of aristocratic popularity, based on conformity, and the sort of artistic innovation that is deemed acceptable by that same wealthy class. Nannerl’s tall teased hair is a perfect example of an abnormality that was close enough for comfort. It is doubly painful to hear how well she understood the social game (on top of her musical excellence), and yet how excluded from it she was because of her gender.

In Nannerl’s day, music was considered a woman’s ornament. As her own mother told her, “Nannerl, you need to learn patience! Music will always be your…ornament. It will help you to attract a good husband. Your happiness lies in your husband und children. Children are what women create.” Hearing these words in twenty-first century New York City, they sound preposterous, outrageous, almost unbelievable. And yet, as recently as this past July, Marina Abramovic said in an interview with Der Tagesspiegel (translation by Artnet), “I had three abortions because I was certain that it would be a disaster for my work. One only has limited energy in the body, and I would have had to divide it. In my opinion that’s the reason why women aren’t as successful as men in the art world. There’s plenty of talented women. Why do men take over the important positions? It’s simple. Love, family, children — a woman doesn’t want to sacrifice all of that.”

Nannerl’s story, too, is that of a martyr, a victim of her time, circumstance, and social constraints. She outlived her parents and her brother to become the family archivist, furnishing her brother’s affairs to interested parties for historic preservation. She would tell admirers that she was “only [her] brother’s pupil,” sacrificing her talent to preserve her (or her family’s) place within the social stratosphere. Christopherson as Nannerl masks the frustration of this subjugation artfully, with winks and nods and the occasional outburst, including one guttural, primal scream that I assure you every woman in the audience felt in the pit of her being.

The Other Mozart was created from facts and stories documented in the Mozart family’s letters. One of the most poignant moments was Nannerl’s pronouncement, after a long recitation of travel updates from her father and brother, “Nobody saved my letters. There was nothing interesting in them.” The blunt historical verity of this statement is heartrending testament to Nannerl’s place in her family, no less in history. Thanks to Sylvia Milo and the brilliant creative team behind The Other Mozart, we have the rare opportunity to pay Nannerl the respect she deserves.

See for yourself at The Players Theater, where The Other Mozart runs through November 13, 2016, then again January 6-9, 2017.

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