Unfinished: An Opera

Inaugural Workshop Presentations August 2016

New York City | August 21, 2016

Vital Opera is proud to be the producing partner on Unfinished: An Opera. Unfinished is a new opera in development from composer Joshua Groffman and librettist Sarah Heady based on the story of now-shuttered Bennett College in Millbrook, NY. Using a mix of archival materials and contemporary testimony from Bennett alumnae and the Millbrook community, Unfinished explores how Bennett is remembered, and forgotten, today.

The inaugural workshop presentations of Unfinished took place on August 20, 2016 at Grace Episcopal Church in Millbrook, NY and on August 21, 2016 at the National Opera Center in New York City. The performances featured sopranos Danielle Messina and Maggie Finnegan and mezzo soprano Jennifer Panara, conducted by Daniela Candillari and directed by Vital Opera Founding Director Kelvin Chan.

More about Bennett College and Unfinished: An Opera

Opened in Millbrook, New York in 1908 as a finishing school for young women, the Bennett School for Girls’ 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. 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 in 1978, the 22-acre Bennett College campus, just outside the village of Millbrook, NY, has stood abandoned. Decades of attempts to repurpose the site have failed; the sprawling, Victorian heart of the campus, 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 will 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.

For more about this project, please click here.

This project was made possible with funds from the Decentralization Program, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Legislature and administered by Arts Mid-Hudson.

This project was also made possible by a grant from the Central Research Development Fund of the University of Pittsburgh.

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