Geraldine Connor obituary

Energetic theatre director, musician and academic best known for Carnival Messiah

Geraldine Connor

Global - Geraldine Connor, who has died aged 59 following a heart attack, latterly described herself as a creator of theatre, artistic director and heritage consultant. However, it requires a far longer list – including musician, composer, ethnomusicologist, performer, writer, singer, academic, broadcaster and cultural ambassador – to do justice to someone fittingly termed (by the Yorkshire Post) "a tropical storm of energy". Her most spectacular endeavour, Carnival Messiah, which she wrote, composed for and directed, married the European classical tradition of oratorio with masquerade and musical inspiration from the African diaspora in an iconoclastic way that typified all that she did.

A radical reinvention of Handel's Messiah, with a 100-plus cast, the show was first produced at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1999, and was later staged in Trinidad and Tobago. It has been experienced by about 75,000 people. In 2007, upon the bicentenary of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act, Geraldine staged it in partnership with David Lascelles (now the eighth Earl of Harewood) in the grounds of Harewood House, which was built with funds acquired through slave trading. With brave ambitions, she had been developing a commercial arena production that she hoped would begin touring large-scale venues across the world in 2012, including at the opening of the Olympics.

Geraldine was born in London to high-achieving Trinidadian parents who paved the way for UK-based black artists. Her father, the singer, actor, folklorist and film-maker Edric Connor, was responsible for bringing the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra to the Festival of Britain in 1951. Her mother, Pearl Connor, was a theatrical agent and founder of the Negro Theatre Workshop. Edric died in 1968. Pearl later married Joe Mogotsi, the leader of the South African vocal group the Manhattan Brothers.

Throughout her life, Geraldine nurtured cultural and educational links between the Caribbean and Britain. She was schooled in Trinidad (Diego Martin government secondary, 1963-68) and in the UK (Camden school for girls, 1968-71). At the Royal College of Music, in London, she studied classical voice, pianoforte and conducting. She graduated in 1974 and returned to Trinidad to teach music for eight years at Queen's Royal College, one of the island's leading schools. Meanwhile she became a licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music in classical voice (mezzo soprano). During these years she was impressively productive both as an educator and a practitioner, working with choirs, vocal soloists, instrumental and folk ensembles, and teaching extramural vocal classes at the University of the West Indies. As a performer, she toured with productions of Porgy and Bess, Showboat and Carmen Jones, and was a backing singer for Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Tom Jones.

Geraldine played bass for the Trintoc Invaders steel band in Trinidad, where she believed she was the first woman to arrange a tune for the Panorama steel-band competition. Her close association with steel-pan music continued on her return in 1984 to the UK, where she made award-winning arrangements for the steel band Ebony. In 1990 she moved to Yorkshire to take up the post of senior lecturer in multicultural music at the University of Leeds, later being appointed senior teaching fellow and lecturer on the popular music studies BA degree course at Bretton Hall. She completed her doctoral research at the Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Leeds, in 2006, with a thesis that addressed issues of Caribbean consciousness, identity and representation.

Specialising in devising epic theatre events, Geraldine boasted directorial skills guaranteed to add brio to any writer's work. Her daring interpretation turned my historical drama Yaa Asantewaa – Warrior Queen into an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza that toured the UK and Ghana in 2001-02, with stunning carnival-inspired design by Clary Salandy, some 50 dancers, actors, musicians and singers, and the title role shared by three women, depicting the story through dance, song and the spoken word.

Among the other acclaimed shows she mounted was Vodou Nation (2004), a multimedia reflection on Haiti, and a hit production of the reggae-infused musical The Harder They Come (for which she composed the Ganja Song). Bouts of ill health in recent years did not dim her visionary spirit. Geraldine never settled for half-measures; whatever she turned her hand to was infused with infectious enthusiasm and a passionate determination.

In 2005, she accepted an award from the British Association of Steel Bands in recognition of the Connor family's contribution to the promotion of steel-band music, Caribbean art, culture and heritage throughout the UK. In 2009, she was presented with Trinidad and Tobago's second highest national honour, the Chaconia medal (gold).

She is survived by her brother, Peter, and his children, Teo and Casey.

Geraldine Roxanne Connor, theatre director, composer and performer, born 22 March 1952; died 21 October 2011. 

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