The specter of Bennett College has loomed large over Millbrook since it closed in 1978. As the decaying buildings become eerie phantoms of their former selves, it seems oddly appropriate that a new crop of creative young people have arrived to revisit memories of the college’s past, perhaps to exorcize it before it finally gets torn down and turned into a park, a promise made by the new owners. Indeed the history of the campus has intrigued many unwanted visitors. One of the last presidents of the college is quoted in the script for “Unfinished,” the opera about Bennett, as saying: “Bennett and Millbrook are synonymous and this is as it should be.”
Bennett College was considered one of the little sisters to the seven sisters colleges where the elite would send their daughters to finishing school. “Prominent American families sent their daughters to this bucolic place expecting that they would return refined and marriageable,” explained librettist Sarah Heady.
Within that context it was not surprising that a packed audience of mostly Millbrook residents arrived to view the work in progress, produced by two natives of the Hudson Valley, composer, Joshua Groffman of Millbrook (son of Cary Scientist, Peter Groffman) and Sarah Heady, librettist of Rhinebeck. Grace Episcopal Church hosted the event.
“Unfinished is part of an ongoing exploration of New York’s Hudson River Valley in word, sound, and image,” explains Sarah Heady in her statement about the work. “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.”
Singing in well-trained operatic voices, sopranos Danielle Messina and Maggie Finnegan and mezzo soprano Jennifer Panara, conducted by Daniela Candillar, dramatized dorm experiences as a paen to one of the last all-girls colleges played on the tragi-comic element with Greek overtones: “We felt like naiads…posed as Trojan women…wore plastic masks when we played the men’s parts…climbed the rafters of Halcyon Hall.”
It was also moving to see how many alumnae of the college were at the performance, 10-20, judging from the hands that went up in the audience. We spoke to Elf Fairservis Ahearn, who went to Bennett in the early seventies: “It was a group of girls who lived with gusto, stayed up all night, were not necessarily high achievers, but adored every minute of it. [The teaser photo is of Elf Ahearn and Melissa Smith.] We got a lot of personal attention and lots of opportunities to be on the stage,” said Ms. Ahearn whose father, Walter A. Fairservis, was a celebrated Vassar professor and started the Sharon Playhouse.
The libretto is based on interviews with former students who shared actual memories of the college. Although it was a bit odd to hear midnight ice cream sodas, potato chips, and Bain de Soleil being sung about in epic tones, there was a wistful aspect to the singing, reminiscent of a Greek chorus: “A lot of us had no real family…we were our own family….Bennett had classy streakers in pearls and high heels….dancing the masque of Spring….wearing next to nothing, wind on our nipples….”
“Let us keen for Troy,” the text says quoting from Euripides.
One can only hope that putting the memories of Bennett College down for posterity will inspire the ghosts of the past in that place to finally allow the buildings to come down.
The project is being developed by Vital Opera which seeks to cultivate human connection through the medium of operatic expression. Their goal is to strengthen the bonds of compassion through the exploration of opera as a vital presenter of truth. You can find more information about them at www.vitalopera.org