Girls, interrupted: Opera about abandoned Bennett College

The Bennett College for Girls (shown above) has been closed for nearly half a century. It was established in Irvington and moved to a 22-acre parcel on the outskirts of the village of Millbrook in 1907. (Historical image courtesy of Millbrook Library)

The Bennett College for Girls (shown above) has been closed for nearly half a century. It was established in Irvington and moved to a 22-acre parcel on the outskirts of the village of Millbrook in 1907. (Historical image courtesy of Millbrook Library)

It stands hollow and empty now, a moldering shell of its luxurious former self. Its impregnable-looking stone exterior has lost the battle to 40 years of Hudson Valley summer heat and winter frost. Welcome to the remains of Halcyon Hall, the main building of Bennett College for Girls, a former luxury hotel built in the late 19th century in the Queen Anne style. The happiness that it once held has fled the building as surely as it once filled Halcyon Hall’s 200 rooms.

girls-interrupted-VRTThe Bennett College for Girls has been as dead for nearly half a century. It was established in Irvington and moved to a 22-acre parcel on the outskirts of the village of Millbrook in 1907. It closed its doors in 1978, after a prolonged struggle to transform itself into a profitable two-year coeducational institution that was more in tune with the educational needs and requirements of the day.

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But Halcyon days can and do survive, where even stone structures crumble and fall. Composer Joshua Groffman and poet Sarah Heady, friends and former Hudson Valley residents, are making sure that Bennett College and the memories and events that it generated over the years will not go quietly into that good night that we call the past.

First, a bit of background: In its youth, Bennett College was a finishing school whose founders were “deeply concerned” that the children of “the wealthier class” weren’t being properly educated to meet the challenges and expectations of their class. As Heady notes in her website, this meant that the daughters of the American elite were expected to return to their families from their years at Bennett sufficiently “refined and marriageable.”

But many of those families, as well as their daughters, were in for a surprise. Bennett’s founder, May Friend Bennett, offered her students an educational philosophy that belied the stereotype of the finishing school. As Heady has written, 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.” “To many American girls,” Bennett wrote, “a diploma spells finished instead of begun.”

may-queen-@That philosophy wasn’t enough to carry the school through the cultural storms of the ’60s and ’70s. Despite decades of effort, the site fell into ruin. It’s once-splendid buildings now stand on the brink of demolition. The site’s latest owners intend to create a public park there.

For the past year-and-a-half, working with the innovative Vital Opera Company, Groffman and Heady have been collaborating on an opera that they call Unfinished. Groffman is a musician and composer; Heady is a poet. He grew up in Millbrook; she grew up in Beacon (“before it was cool”) and then Rhinebeck. Both are 31 years old. They met in high school. She lives and works in San Francisco. He’s based in New York City. They’ve worked on other, smaller projects together, but Unfinished will be their most ambitious project yet – if only because neither has ever written an opera.

Their collaboration, Heady said, grew out of a shared fascination with both the Hudson River and its environs, but also with the economic, political, social and natural events that flow through the river’s communities. Heady describes herself as “a writer of place,” with a concomitant interest in writing about women and about abandoned places and their contexts.

She’s adamant that Unfinished isn’t a eulogy for a mere set of dilapidated buildings, but an exploration of the dynamics that were and continue to be part of Millbrook’s history.

Groffman offered this summary of the work: “I’d call it an experimental opera about the legacy of Bennett College, about the way it has been remembered and forgotten.”

To that end, both friends said, the answer to that question is still very much in play. And that’s where this innovative project becomes even more innovative: Heady and Groffman are intent on having others who remember the school and what it has wrought to join their collaboration.

Scenes from Unfinished will be performed in a workshop setting at Millbrook’s Grace Episcopal Church. The workshop is being produced by Vital Opera, whose audacious mission is to “cultivate human connection through operatic expression.” The workshop will be directed by Vital Opera’s founding general director Kelvin Chan and will allow Millbrook residents and Bennett alumnae to respond and contribute to the work-in-progress.

“It will be an interactive event,” said Heady. “We’re very, very interested in the local viewpoint. There’s so much to explore.”

 

Unfinished workshop performance, Saturday, August 20, 5 p.m., $10, Grace Episcopal Church, 3328 Franklin Avenue, Millbrook; http://unfinished.brownpapertickets.com. For more information about Vital Opera’s mission and past projects, visit www.vitalopera.org.

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