Geraldine Connor

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GERALDINE Connor, who has died aged 59, was a real larger-than-life figure in every sense of the phrase.

A Trinidadian who became an honorary Yorkshirewoman, her life in the arts and education was a remarkable testament to the meeting of Caribbean and British cultures and, in her acclaimed stage production Carnival Messiah, her interests and talents were fully and potently integrated.

Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago, she lived for close to 20 years in Yorkshire, in Skelmanthorpe and, more recently, Harewood. She came from a distinguished line.

Her father Edric Connor was the first black Shakespearean actor, who participated in several major Hollywood movies and wrote the renowned “Manchester United Calypso”.

Her mother Pearl was heavily involved in the arts as a theatrical and literary agent and actress.

She would go on to marry Joe Mogotsi of the South African vocal group the Manhattan Brothers after Edric’s death.

Thus the young Geraldine was almost bound to pursue a life in the arts. And so it proved, as she began a career of rich and varied achievement as a student at the Royal College of Music in London in the 1960s, where she studied singing.

By the end of that decade her performing and recording career had begun in earnest. She was part of the vocal cast which produced the first LP release of two little known songwriters and a virtually unheard show.

The fact it was Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar confirms her contribution to one of the most important events in the history of UK musical theatre.

Later, in the 1970s, she would lend her supporting vocals to international artists of the stature of Bob Marley and Tom Jones.

But Geraldine Connor’s creative abilities would take her into new realms as a composer, director and teacher.

By the early 1990s, having attained a Master’s degree from SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, she was Senior Lecturer in Popular Music Studies at Bretton.

The college is one of the country’s leading, innovating institutions in liberal arts education. Sited near Wakefield, it had achieved a reputation for pioneering courses in music, art, dance and theatre.

Geraldine Connor was quickly a dynamic part of that artistic synthesis. She had conceived a new show that would marry the sounds and styles of the Caribbean carnival – from reggae to calypso, ska to ragga, bluebeat to dancehall, sound system to soca – with Handel’s baroque oratorio Messiah.

Initially presented as a student production, Carnival Messiah would soon become a striking symbol of a new multiculturalism and the signature work of its visionary creator.

By the early 2000s, Carnival Messiah had achieved sell-out performances at West Yorkshire Playhouse and in Trinidad, too.

It had also become the subject of high-level negotiations to take the smash show to the US and even to Broadway.

The plans foundered for a number of reasons – Geraldine Connor wanted to protect the integrity of the show, its musical and spiritual power – but the piece returned to the UK in 2007 when it became a significant success in an extended marquee run at Harewood House.

More recently, all of her energies were being directed at a London Olympiad version of the show for 2012.

Despite fading health, there was still time for this inspirational woman to achieve her doctorate at Leeds University in 2006, where her academic focus was the carnival of Trinidad.

She was much-loved by the musicians, actors, dancers and the thousands of students she touched with her galvanising vigour, her stern passion, her constant humour.

She was also a board member of the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

In the age of the social network, her Facebook site resonates to the hundreds of tributes that have poured in on hearing the sad news of her early passing.

Geraldine Connor’s funeral will take place on Friday, November 4, at 1pm at St Aidan’s Church, Roundhay Road, Leeds.