Arts & Culture

‘The Other Mozart’ looks at classical composer’s sister

Sylvia Milo stars as Anna Maria Mozart, older sister of classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in “The Other Mozart.” The one-woman show plays July 19 in San Luis Obispo as part of Festival Mozaic.
Sylvia Milo stars as Anna Maria Mozart, older sister of classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in “The Other Mozart.” The one-woman show plays July 19 in San Luis Obispo as part of Festival Mozaic.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s legend looms large in the world of classical music.

But did you know the famous composer had an equally talented sister?

Maria Anna Mozart, nicknamed Nannerl, is the subject of the one-woman show “The Other Mozart,” starring Polish-born actress, director, musician and singer Sylvia Milo. Directed by Isaac Bryne, Milo’s play features courtly choreography by Janice Orlandi, atmospheric lighting by Joshua Rose and evocative music by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis.

Milo said “The Other Mozart” offers an enlightening look at a virtuoso keyboard player and composer whose life remains a relative mystery.

“She’s such a symbol for so many other women … who were not able to pursue their brilliance,” said the show’s creator, who will bring “The Other Mozart” to San Luis Obispo on July 19 as part of Festival Mozaic’s Fringe series. The festival, which runs July 13 through 24, features concerts, “Notable Encounter” talks and more.

Milo got the idea for “The Other Mozart” a decade ago on a trip to Vienna.

In celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday, “I decided to explore the city through the experiences of Mozart. I went to all the places he performed,” Milo said, and stopped by one of his former residences, now the Mozarthaus Vienna museum.

There, she caught a glimpse of a family portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, circa 1780. In the painting, Wolfgang and Nannerl Mozart sit at the keyboard of a harpsichord, their arms lovingly interlaced as they perform a duet. Their father, composer and violinist Leopold Mozart, leans over to listen.

What struck Milo, other than Nannerl Mozart’s stunning hairstyle, was the fact that the siblings are portrayed as equals.

In fact, Milo discovered through the course of research that included letters, diary entries and other contemporary accounts, the Mozart siblings toured together as children, earning rave reviews as musical prodigies.

“The kids were equally admired at first,” Milo said, adding that Nannerl was often billed before her brother “because she was older and she played harpsichord better.” “It’s clear that she was recognized as a big, big talent.”

“Imagine an 11-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,” the Augsburger Intelligenz newspaper wrote on May 19, 1763. “It was a source of wonder to many.”

But while Wolfgang Mozart went on to become one of the influential and prolific composers of the classical era, his sister’s career was cut short.

“When she turned 18, she had to stay home to preserve her reputation so she could make a good marriage,” Milo explained, constrained by a society that viewed women as weak, intellectually inferior creatures whose primary purpose was to please their spouses.

In fact, she added, some 18th-century thinkers actively argued against women expressing themselves creatively. “For a woman to aim at the sublime makes her ridiculous,” philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote at the time. “She is an unbeautiful, unnatural freak who is disobeying nature and aping the genius of the male — who is her (and nature’s) lord and master.”

“Leopold didn’t have enough money to promote both children, and definitely didn’t have the means or the power to fight such prejudice,” Milo said. “He was hoping she could have a musical life somewhere.”

Although Nannerl Mozart, who married at age 33, did perform at amateur concerts and work as a music teacher, she spent most of her adult life caring for her family. In addition to her own three children, she helped raise five stepchildren.

She also maintained close ties with her parents. “Wolfgang was the first successful freelance composer. He actually had a great career,” Milo said. “He was able to be so bold because he knew that his sister was taking care of their father. He didn’t have that responsibility.”

“In studying the story of Nannerl, I feel like I understood so much about all the different mechanisms that were working against a woman to succeed,” Milo said, including class, wealth and societal pressures. “How did she survive this … to live through all these men who were in charge or her life and still come out strong at the end?”

“She was an amazing woman,” Milo said.

To portray Nannerl Mozart, Milo sports a towering hairdo designed by Courtney Bednarowski — a mix of vodka and sugar holds her locks aloft — and wears an 18-foot dress designed by Magdalena Dabrowska and Anna Sroka. “It represents the extravagance of the time but also the burden she had to carry,” Milo said of the elaborate costume, which includes a corset and panniers designed by Miodrag Guberinic.

“The story (of Nannerl) has been silenced for such a long time,” Milo said, adding that audience members often thank her for bringing it to the stage. “It is such an important story and people recognize that we should know [it].”

‘The Other Mozart’

7:30 p.m. July 19

Cultural and Performing Arts Center, Cuesta College, Highway 1, San Luis Obispo

$45 to $70

805-781-3009 or