(Photo credit: Guy Farrar)
We’re very much looking forward to seeing the film of Carnival Messiah at West Yorkshire Playhouse this Saturday – it’s a great opportunity to reconnect with a spectacular show.
It also brings to mind lots of the conversations we had with Christella Litras in the course of our Telling project. Reproduced below is an extract from the story we wrote about Caution Collective – this excerpt draws heavily on Christella’s reflections of the time she spent working with Geraldine on Carnival Messiah.
We met with Christella several times over a period of a few months.
One of our meetings took place at her home on the outskirts of Leeds. There is no mistaking the fact that a musician lives here; the room we meet in feels as much like a rehearsal space as it does a suburban living room. Pride of place is given to a piano – the family piano – which she first played at six and which she continues to play.
We were at Stella’s house so that we could learn about where Caution Collective had come from and where it might be going. Christella was the woman to talk to because despite its collective credentials, Christella runs this thing. It feels as if everyone knows this and is safe within the operating model. Sustaining a day job, working on her own creative projects, bringing up her son and taking care of Caution’s musical direction require huge dedication and time – perhaps more time than there are hours in the day. Christella is assisted now by someone who provides production assistance but she continues to hold things together and to steer.
If – as many people would explain to us – Caution Collective is a family, it’s a matriarchy and its roots pre-date the founding of the Collective in 2007.
Christella responded to our first question – about the origins of Caution Collective – by talking about Geraldine Connor for 20 minutes.
Amongst her many talents and attributes, Geraldine was a musician, ethnomusicologist, artistic director, composer, singer and academic. Best known for her seminal work – Carnival Messiah – which combined Handel’s Messiah with African and Caribbean traditions of masquerade and Carnival, in its first iteration at West Yorkshire playhouse in 1999 its cast of over 100 included opera singers, dancers, musicians whose forms included classical, steel pan, West African Kora and opera. The professional cast was supported by a community cast of 70 volunteers, for many of whom Carnival Messiah represented a first theatrical experience. The production returned to West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2002, was later performed in Trinidad and Tobago and in 2007 formed part of a cultural response to the bicentenary of the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Act with a series of performances at Harewood House. Over its lifetime, the production was seen by about 75,000 people.
In 1999, a sceptical reviewer (Dave Simpson for The Guardian) described his initial misgivings at the prospect of sitting through the production at West Yorkshire Playhouse, declaring that it ought to be a disaster. Once he submits to an experience which sits well outside the traditional western theatrical or musical canon, he surprises himself and discovers that,
Carnival Messiah holds a vice – like grip on the imagination that could have the most hardened atheist running to the church.
Though Carnival Messiah is perhaps Geraldine’s best-known work, she was responsible for a number of other large-scale theatre productions including Yaa Asantewaa which toured the UK and Ghana in 2001/2, Voudou Nation and the musical production of The Harder They Come.
In the Guardian’s obituary for Geraldine Connor following her untimely death in 2011, Margaret Busby described her thus:
Geraldine never settled for half measures; whatever she turned her hand to was infused with infectious enthusiasm and a passionate determination.
Christella first came across Geraldine when she was a senior teaching fellow and lecturer on Leeds University’s Popular Music BA Programme. Geraldine turned her down for a place on the course,
She said I shouldn’t underestimate the opportunity of the place I’d got at Dartington, but I didn’t know at the time just how big that school was. I got accepted there but I didn’t want to go. She said, ‘Stella you should go to Dartington’ … I was like, ‘I don’t want to go there, I’m only an hour away from Mum and Dad and I don’t want to go somewhere that’s like five hours away’. So, she turned me down.
A year passed. Christella didn’t take up the place at Dartington. She applied again to Leeds, this time through clearing.
Advised by a friend about the availability of places, I rang bang on 8am and was told there were three places available providing I had the right qualifications…When Geri saw me she was like ‘What are you doing here?’ I’d missed the whole induction week and was probably a couple years older than everyone else.
Geri saw me perform then started being nice to me and asked me to come to the Carnival Messiah workshop. I didn’t want to do Carnival Messiah. At that age, I wanted to do Salsa. She was like ‘Find your backside in my office tomorrow’… so typical of Geri. I thought ‘Who the hell is she talking to like that?’
Nevertheless, she found herself in Geraldine’s office at the appointed time.
A couple of friends advised that I should go because otherwise she’d give me a hard time. I turned up and she started to play the Hallelujah Chorus the Carnival Messiah way and she asked me to ad lib and just sing. I did and she was leading it and wrote with me. We did it and she was so happy. From that day, she became my mother / mentor figure.
Reading interviews with Geraldine Connor, it seems that Christella’s experience was not atypical. Geraldine was a woman with exceptionally high standards who expected the best of herself and of those around her. In an interview for The Yorkshire Post during rehearsals prior to the 2007 performances at Harewood House, the journalist (unnamed, unfortunately, in the interview which I found online) is clearly mesmerised by her approach,
As she watches the show’s opening unfold – or, more accurately, explode – before her, a member of the community cast arrives late.
He makes a beeline for the director to proffer an apology.
The telling – off she issues is quiet but severe, and the face of the young man on the end of it crestfallen. He has the look of someone being told by their mother she is ‘not angry, just disappointed’.
The journalist goes on to tell us what happens when Geraldine identifies one cast member (out of the 60 present in the rehearsal) who is performing below par,
You were flat. There was no energy. It was like you were asleep…You are creating a traditional and contemporary enactment of carnival. If I was to see what you have just done and think it was carnival, I would never go to carnival in my life.
And then – standards understood and accepted – she opens the room to feedback and listens to it,
She commands the utmost respect from every person in the room.
Listening to Christella talk about her relationship with Geraldine (whom she refers to as Geri), it is clear that once respect had been established between the two of them and once Christella had proved her artistic worth, creative opportunities arose beyond the first run of Carnival Messiah at West Yorkshire Playhouse, with Christella becoming one of three of the original cast chosen to perform in Trinidad and Tobago. Whilst in Trinidad, she forged a bond with Ella Andall who would – in a separate but parallel story – go on to become Christella’s mother in law. Returning to Leeds, she maintained the relationships she had established in Trinidad and was offered the opportunity to return,
I had a work experience slot so Geri was like ’What do you want to do for work experience?’ So, I told her I wanted to go back to Trinidad. I asked her whether she thought I was being over ambitious.
I’ll never forget it; we sat in Geri’s office and she leant forward and she said ‘Child, you could never be too ambitious in life’. She told me to go for it.
On graduation, Christella continued to work with Geri, touring with her to Ghana and collaborating on projects in this country. When we asked her if it was unusual for women to lead on large scale music productions, she answered,
No, because I watched Geri and I went on tour with her, went to Ghana to play in Yaa Asantewaa …I watched this woman directing and composing. My first big job, Geri asked me to write sixteen songs for Stratford Theatre – it was my test.
Between 2000 and 2006, Christella spent months at a time working in Trinidad,
I went out there and ended up collaborating on Ella’s album. I underestimated the skills I had because we just do it naturally. Ella needed someone who could arrange vocal harmonies and I just did it for her and she was like, ‘You need to come back, I need you on my next album’. So, I spent six years out there from 2000 – 2006. I was there constantly for months on end. I worked as a freelancer. Back then, money was better because you could get a commission for like £900 for four days work. I’d get my money and be off from Manchester to Trinidad for £330. So that’s how I did it and ended up collaborating on four of her albums.
Following her son’s birth in 2005, Christella decided to relocate back to England. She performed again in Carnival Messiah in 2007 and afterwards gave some thought to starting her own venture.
It struck us in many of our conversations with Christella that over the course of her artistic career she has sought out mentors and guides – often accomplished women. It is noticeable that when Christella recalls conversations with the likes of Geri and Ella, she recounts their exchanges verbatim, as if they had happened yesterday. When it came to naming her band, she spoke first to Ella,
I wanted my own group. I decided to use the group we have now – most of them although some left. And it just developed to Caution. It was Ella that told me to name them Caution. I didn’t come up with the name. I said to her, ‘What do think I should call the group?’ and she said, ‘Call them Caution’. And then it changed from Caution to Caution Collective because we started to guest people and we weren’t sure if we wanted to keep them in the group so we call it a Collective so we can ask people to come and go.
Though Christella is at pains to point out what differentiates her from Geraldine Connor, it feels clear that a similar commitment to quality underlines their approaches. Like Geraldine, Christella expects high standards. She expects musicians and collaborators to stretch their practice; to listen and to learn. She contrasted her and Geraldine’s approaches to testing musicians.
It’s like if I put someone on the spot to do something, they may not understand it but they trust me because they know that every show we do works. For example, Kieran, he gave me a lot of challenges at the beginning because he wasn’t confident so I was constantly saying to him ‘You sound great’. Geri, she wouldn’t have said that. She’d be like, ‘Boy, do you want this part or not? Because if you don’t I’ve got this one waiting…I can’t tell you anymore. Do it or don’t do it.’
Geri would sometimes bring the understudy in. She did that to me; she… was testing me to see how I handle this. She’d test everybody to see people’s characters. I didn’t give Geri any shit but inside I was thinking, ‘Well, okay, will I get my part back?’ I was still there cheering them on and then Geri took them off and said, ‘Right, you’re back on now’. And then I realised that I was actually doing my part well.
Towards the end of our conversation, Christella mentions an exchange she had with someone some time after Geraldine’s death. This particular artist – an accomplished singer who has toured extensively – had a run in with Geraldine and remained angry at being rebuffed.
I asked her, ‘Why, what did she do?’ She said, ‘She just made me feel really uncomfortable in the audition and she didn’t take me on and I knew I could do the part’, and I’m like, ‘Geri knows exactly what she wants’.
As we’re about to leave, Christella talked to us about how she works with musicians and singers; what she does to enable them to get the best out of themselves. Though Christella describes her approach as more gentle and less direct than Geraldine’s, it is clear that she, too, will take decisive action where it is needed and where it serves the greater project. She told us about a singer who struggled with harmonies. The story left us wondering whether what Christella got from Geraldine is what she gives to others,
…because she’s not a natural harmoniser, [she] would get up on stage and always try to cut the big ad-lib and sing over everybody. I just had to pull her to one side and say, ‘Obviously you are a solo artist but you need to learn to collaborate’. She was like, ‘I can’t harmonise’, and her attitude was in the wrong place so I just told her, ‘I think it’s best if you just take some time out; go find yourself’…She did and got really offended. It hurt her but she wasn’t ready…
Even to this day she is not a natural harmoniser because she does not have confidence in herself to just do that but we encourage her so much. She came back to the group when asked to guest at the Playhouse a few years ago and her energy was just beautiful, it was so right. She’d obviously gone through a lot and I said to her, ‘Come back’ and she said, ‘Can I?’ and I went, ‘Yeah, you’re ready to come back’.