Earl of Harewood celebrates the life of a Carnival Messiah

Geraldine Connor, organiser of Carnival Messiah. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Geraldine Connor, organiser of Carnival Messiah. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
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it is apt that the biggest challenge facing the organisers of a celebration of the life of Geraldine Connor is trying to fit everything in.

It perfectly befits a woman who seemed to cram more into a shortened lifetime than ought really to be possible.

“It has been a case of trying to keep it down to a reasonable time and explaining to all the people who want to take part that we just don’t have the capacity for everyone to contribute. We’ve been fighting people off,” said David Lascelles.

The Earl of Harewood is one of the people behind Gala For Geri, a celebration of the life and work of a woman whose influence spanned generations and continents.

Ms Connor died in October last year, aged 59, but her legacy, said friend and collaborator Mr Lascelles, will live on.

The Gala for Geri was originally conceived as a single evening celebrating Ms Connor’s life but the event has expanded beyond its initial ambitions.

Now the Gala for Geri will be spread over two evenings with part one being held at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East this Sunday and a second celebration in Leeds the following weekend.

The Leeds event will be held at West Yorkshire Playhouse, March 31, and will feature specially created performances, musical pieces, dance, theatre and a 20-minute extract from Ms Connor’s most famous piece of work.

Ms Connor was the creative force behind the enormous and enormously popular show Carnival Messiah.

First performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1999, it took three months to create and took the stage of the Playhouse by storm.

The show was a sell-out hit for the Playhouse and returned to the Quarry Theatre stage in 2002.

Carnival Messiah, although her biggest hit, was only one of a number of highlights in Ms Connor’s career, who toured as a backing singer for Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Tom Jones, trained at the Royal College of Music, toured with productions of Porgy and Bess and Carmen Jones and was a senior lecturer at Leeds University.

Mr Lascelles met Ms Connor in 2003 when Harewood House, his family seat, hosted a conference with museums on how they would mark the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery.

Harewood House was built with profits made from the slave trade and at the time of the 2003 conference, Mr Lascelles was looking for a major creative piece of work to mark the bicentenary in 2007.

At the end of the conference an extract from Carnival Messiah was performed and Mr Lascelles, a TV and film producer professionally, was captivated.

“I was absolutely blown away by what I saw,” he said.

“I met Geraldine and we hit it off straight away. Even though we are seemingly total opposites, we had an instant connection.

“We made each other laugh, she had a really irreverent sense of humour and both being big music fans we would share lots of music we thought each other would like.”

Mr Lascelles wanted to re-mount Carnival Messiah at Harewood House in 2007. It was an epic challenge but working for months together as producer and director Mr Lascelles and Ms Connor formed a formidable partnership.

The £1.2m needed to stage the show, which was performed in a specially constructed tent in the grounds of Harewood, was raised through the Arts Council, Yorkshire Forward, the Heritage Lottery Fund and private investors.

Months of rehearsals with a community cast from around Leeds and performers from the UK and the Caribbean led to a spectacular show – which Mr Lascelles still hopes will become an arena show, fulfilling Ms Connor’s ambitions for Carnival Messiah.

Mr Lascelles said: “She was a very special, inspirational person. She had that quality that teachers often have, of being able to inspire.

“She worked with so many people here and in the Caribbean, over a period of 30 years, in choirs and steel bands, through her productions and teaching, that her inspiration and her legacy will absolutely live on.”

At her funeral in November last year, part funded by Leeds City Council, there were performances, but, said Mr Lascelles, the Gala for Geri in London and Leeds will be a true celebration.

“Everyone is performing and giving us their spaces for free. We are in the process of setting up a charity in her name and all the money raised by the event in London and in Leeds will go towards that and continue to help and inspire people just as Geraldine did all through her life,” said Mr Lascelles