Unfinished – an opera

This is the project page for Unfinished, a new opera that tells the story of the now-defunct Bennett College and an American community in flux.

Unfinished is part of an ongoing exploration of New York’s Hudson River Valley in word, sound, and image by poet Sarah Heady and composer Joshua Groffman. Our collaboration grew out of a common fascination with tracing the economic, political, social, and natural currents that flow—quite literally—through the communities in which we grew up. Our previous projects include Pained in the blue seat, pained in the red seat, which documents the interior life of a train ride north to Poughkeepsie, and An arrow pointed down, which uses the metaphor of the Hudson River as an “arrow down” to explore the enormous influence of New York City on the geography of communities farther upstream.

The story of Bennett College, as told in Unfinished, is our most elaborate undertaking so far. Opened in Millbrook, New York in 1908 as a finishing school for young women, the Bennett School for Girls adopted Halcyon Hall, a former Queen Anne-style luxury hotel as its main building. Bennett’s founders were “deeply concerned about the fact that the children of the wealthier class were not being educated to meet the challenges and the problems in their station in life.” Prominent American families sent their daughters to this bucolic place expecting that they would return refined and marriageable.

At the same time, the school’s unique educational philosophy often belied the stereotype of a finishing school. Recognizing that “to many American girls a diploma spells finished instead of begun,” founder May Friend Bennett emphasized the development of each young woman’s unique spiritual connection with herself and with the world. She encouraged her students to cultivate creative expression through the arts and to commune deeply with their idyllic Hudson Valley surroundings.

Bennett postcard larger

As the twentieth century progressed and educational expectations for women changed, Bennett evolved into a junior college offering degrees in horsemanship, fashion and interior design, fine and performing arts, and early childhood education, in addition to a liberal arts curriculum that prepared students for transfer to four-year institutions.

Following the social upheavals of the 1960s, the model of single-sex education itself came under strain and Bennett College, as it was now known, suffered the same financial uncertainty as other American women’s colleges. In the early 1970s, Bennett began admitting male students and made efforts to restructure, including mergers with other institutions of higher education.

Despite these efforts, as well as enormous investments in state-of-the-art facilities designed to attract applicants, enrollment dropped until it was at less than half capacity; the college’s financial situation deteriorated precipitously. On August 10, 1977, the Millbrook Round Table ran the headline “Bennett College folds.” About 120 people lost their jobs and 225 students faced a nonexistent fall semester. As one of Bennett’s last presidents had noted in the mid-1960s, “Bennett College and Millbrook are synonymous…we are one, and this is as it should be.” With the loss of this major facet of its identity, the Village of Millbrook experienced significant changes to its economic and social fabric.

Since its shuttering, the 22-acre Bennett campus, just outside the village, has stood abandoned. Decades of attempts to repurpose the site have failed; Halycon Hall has decayed beyond repair. In 2014, the property passed into the hands of local owners, who declared their intention to repurpose the grounds as a public park.

Unfinished undertakes to examine the legacy of Bennett College through the medium of opera. Using a mix of archival materials and contemporary testimony from Bennett alumnae and the Millbrook community, Unfinished explores how Bennett College is remembered, and forgotten, today.

In August 2016, scenes from Unfinished were performed in a workshop setting at Millbrook’s Grace Episcopal Church and the National Opera Center in New York City. Produced by Vital Opera and directed by Kelvin Chan, the workshop allowed Millbrook residents—many of whom have firsthand experience with both the pre-1977 “living” Bennett and its post-closure drama—to react to the work-in-progress.  

Grounded in this interactive workshop, Unfinished will continue to grow out of the lived experience of the community around which it centers, providing us with rich documentary material as well an ethical underpinning to our creative process. It is our hope that the workshop will not only guide us toward a finished opera but facilitate dialogue in a community that, nearly forty years on, is still seeking closure for a critical piece of its history.

Our stance is not a nostalgic one. Rather, by engaging deeply with Bennett and Millbrook as they were, we hope to understand these places as they are today. Change is a constant; nothing (and nobody) is ever finished.