NightWood turns the Mount into a new world

The gardens will wake with elf-light and firelight, a drum-beat and a sound of bells. Edith Wharton loved the stars and the night sky, said Susan Wissler, executive director at the Mount, Wharton’s historic home in Lenox. She had books on astronomy, and she wrote memories of stargazing on the terrace and the widow’s walk.

When she lived in France she would be at Hyères on the Mediterranean at Christmas with a houseful of guests. They would read books aloud to each other and critique them. She said it was one of the happiest times of her life.

This winter, in that spirit, the Mount will extend their fall programming into the holidays, in a landscape of mystery and fantasy, doors into other worlds, journey and night.

From November 19 to January 3, from Thursday to Sunday the Mount will open the grounds for NightWood, a light and sound show, with original music, fluid hues, sculpture and flame.

Wissler has been thinking about Son et Lumière at the Mount for years, she said. At Naumkeag, at their Winterlights festival, she remembers walking through a stand of hemlocks that shimmered with pinpricks of light like phospheresence. 

“It was atmospheric and impressive,” she said.

In late summer she began looking for artists, and she met Chris Bocchiaro, a lighting designer for theatre, opera, dance and public art in the Boston area. They connected in part through his work with the Trustees of Reservations at the Crane Estate in Agawam.

Bocchiaro has brought in theatrical scenic designer and architect Megan Kinneen and sound designer Greg Hanson to create a kind of self-guided travelling theater experience throughout the gardens and grounds.

It begins outside the stable at the top of the hill, where a popup café with bistro lights and heaters offers hot comfort food, hot cider and chili, and two fire pits to warm up. And it opens with the walk down the long road Edith Wharton would ridden in her carriage on crisp nights.

‘The woods are a journey, a passage, a mystery.’

“The woods are a journey, a passage, a mystery,” Wissler said.

In the walk to the house, a heartbeat is palpable.

The sound designer, Greg Hanson, wanted to create something original for each sequence, Bocchiaro said. He draws on defined melodies in some moments and pared-down sounds in others. Bells, percussion, a solo cello.

It is all original composition, and Hanson is creating almost all of the sound himself, with his own instruments and his own voice, solo or in a choir — not lyrics but timbre.

He hopes to inspire imagination. The pauses on this journey are not familiar holiday scenes and carols, Bocchiaro said — but they call to emotions people associate with the holidays, to mystery. In the winter holidays, people spend time outdoors, and around candles and firelight, thinking about life and possibility. 

Walking here, Bocchiaro realized how deeply he could see between the trees. The understory is open, fern and rock but not dense undergrowth. So he has set playful lights illuminating the night woods.

And torches will light the path all the way — burning real flame.

“Think medieval,” Wissler said.

The staff will fill them every night (like a Victorian lamplighter). They will also keep easily at hand throughout the walk.

“You’ll never be more than 25 to 50 yards from someone,” Wissler said.

In the walled dooryard at the front of the house, the light will pool brighter.

“The forecourt is warmth and community and individuality all as one,” she said. 

In three areas, Kinneen has designed sculptural elements inspired by the natural environments. Here a massive table will glow in the light of hundreds of candles, Bocchiaro said. People will come from the open woods into an enclosed place filled with joy.

Around the corner of the house, he has imagined the flower garden as an ice garden, Wissler said, playing on crystal structures, the geometry of snowflakes, shades of purple and blue.

The lime walk invokes the sounds of wind.

“The lights and sounds synchronize to give the sense of the wind carrying us along a long path,” Bocchiaro said. “Each area has its own feel.”

The lime walk is its own place, Wissler said — walls of light, half dark, moving ito the walled Italian garden. And the Italian garden opens into the wonder of life existing when all seems dead and dormant for the winter dead leaves and bare branches.

Each space creates an arc, moving within a theme. Traditionally, a show like this at a historic house might light up a landmark and tell the story of the place, Bocchiaro said. Here they wanted to create a fluid pageant through the whole property.

“The lighting is a fully moving element in time,” he said, “so the music and soundscapes evolve, and the lights follow. A single computerized system drives the lighting and the sound, and that’s all programmed moment by moment.”

The lights are not colored glass holiday bulbs, Wissler explained, but flexible, like theater lights, so that they can change in hue or turn on and off to move the light across space.

Bocchiaro often works in opera houses, but he has worked with outdoor shows before.

“There’s a theatrical form called promenade theater where the audience moves,” he said, “so that rather than changing the stage scenery you move the (people) instead. This show is inspired by that idea — put the audience into the set.” 

And having a beautiful environment to work with propels him on. He finds a kind of magic in the freedom to walk outside at night, and in firelight. 

“There’s something very ancient, celebratory and also solemn to have that kind of processional,” he said. “Torches light the way throughout the event, and they create that bubble of light which hightens the mystery of what’s out there in the dark.”

The path curves naturally to reveal the woods and gardens, and he sees dramatic intention there on Edith Wharton’s part.

“The layout of the Mount reveals itself slowly and encourages you to discover more and more as you venture on,” he said. “It lends itself to the experience we’re creating, as people are encouraged to explore along a fixed path and experience each area and allow their own imagination to run wild. It’s contemplative, meditative, joyful.”

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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