When Mozart was a Wunderkind, he toured the great courts of Europe with his older sister, Nannerl. Nannerl -- the name is the German equivalent of Nancy -- was, by all accounts, an amazing pianist. She stopped performing in her late teens, when both children were growing too old to be child prodigies.
Now Nannerl has a new status, as feminist icon.
Writers and researchers who take on her cause argue that Nannerl was a victim of her times, and they wonder what might have been, had women's opportunities in the 18th century not been so limited. The 2011 French film "Mozart's Sister" portrayed Mozart's family as loving and close, while constructing a fictional story around Nannerl. Mozart's sister, whose formal name was Maria Anna Mozart, has also been the heroine of several novels.
"The Other Mozart," a one-woman off-Broadway play by musician and writer Sylvia Milo, brings Nannerl to life with particular passion.
The play, on stage from May 4 through May 7 at Shea's 710 Theatre, features Milo in memorable trappings heavy with metaphor. She appears encircled in an 18-foot skirt, made by a Polish designer. She is confined in a corset.
Though she grew up a musician in Warsaw, Poland, Milo claims never to have heard of Nannerl before she visited the Mozart family's house in Salzburg and saw her portrait. That she never knew about Nannerl is startling, considering that Mozart's sister figures prominently in any account of the composer's childhood. The family portrait Milo saw is in virtually every book about the composer.
"I studied classical music. I took college-level music history courses. There were no women talked about," Milo explained in a phone interview. "For a woman Mozart to have existed... for that not to be shared as a story, that she was such a huge success, and so popular, that's a story that was completely ignored."
No one can gauge with any certainty the extent of Nannerl's talent. We know she was a fine pianist. Her father, Leopold, claimed proudly that his little girl was one of the foremost artists in Europe.
Letters show that on one occasion, Nannerl sent Wolfgang a song she had written. He praised it and encouraged her to write more. Whether she did, or not, is a question that haunts Milo. If she could ask Nannerl anything, she reflects, that would be it. Were there any other compositions? What happened to them?
Any drama about Nannerl involves a lot of guessing. Journalists covering Milo's play have already jumped to conclusions.
"By the way, Mozart had an equally talented sister," ran the headline in the Huffington Post.
In Britain, the Daily Mail made the same claim. "Revealed: Mozart's sister was just as talented -- but had to stop playing so she could learn to sew and find a husband." More than one writer has wondered in print if some of Mozart's music was, in fact, written by Nannerl.
It's a slippery slope, one that could fuel unfair resentment toward Mozart, who has already been fictionalized by "Amadeus." Faced with such possibilities, Milo, on the phone, seemed genuinely concerned. She said she loves Mozart and his music, and makes no claim that Nannerl's gifts equaled Wolfgang's.
Still, the story she tells has been described as bitter. Nannerl reads dramatically from the family's famous letters, hidden in the folds of her voluminous skirt.
It was Nannerl who saved the correspondence, the play points out. Reading through the letters, Milo got several surprises.
"I started the research thinking it's the fault of the father. In many Mozart biographies, he's portrayed as a controlling figure. And regarding Nannerl, some people blame him directly," she said. "When I read the letters, that changed my mind completely. I got a picture of an incredibly caring father. Coming from Europe myself, that stern approach, it's just a way to care. I also didn't get at all that he forgot about her."
Milo reflected that Nannerl stopped touring and performing because of the era in which she lived.
"I think it was the society's rule, that it was unseemly for her to do that as a woman. When she turned 18, that would have jeopardized her marriage prospects," she said. Nannerl did eventually marry, at 33. She married a widowed nobleman with five children, and they had three more children together.
Critics consistently praise the striking imagery of "The Other Mozart." The play features music by Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart -- and also contemporary music by Milo's husband, Nathan Davis, and by Phyllis Chen. The contemporary music could be described as glimmers of the 18th century -- the rustle of fans, the tinkle of music boxes, the clink of teacups, and other musical elements of Nannerl's world.
"She had to take care of things, running the house. It took a lot of time," Milo said.
Because of women's role in society, she pointed out, Nannerl's case is just one among many. It's a pity, she said. "For us not to be able to tell how many other women we lost, by not giving them a chance -- women who could have been great, could have contributed to the wealth of our culture."
Again, Milo said, she is not suggesting that Nannerl's genius equaled her brother's. "A lot of people jump to that conclusion just because they want to see that," she said.
"But there was a huge potential. We know that."
What: "The Other Mozart"
When: 7:30 p.m. May 4, 8 p.m. May 5, 8 p.m. May 6 and 2 p.m. May 7
Where: Shea's 710 Theatre, 710 Main St.