Puppetry program teams with Boston Pops

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STORRS, CONN. >> When Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart asked the University of Connecticut to provide a guest narrator to read "A Visit From St. Nicholas" during a 2014 holiday concert at the school, he was expecting to get UConn's president or perhaps a distinguished professor.

Instead, the school provided an orange puppet named Skip Toumalou, dressed in a Santa hat, to read the famous poem.

"We had not known that the university has one of the best puppetry programs in the entire world," Lockhart said. "The result was so professional, and the puppet and the student who voiced the puppet were one of the best narrators we've ever had."

That concert led to a bigger collaboration, which will culminate Saturday when students from UConn's Puppet Arts Program perform two shows with the world-famous Boston Pops at the city's Symphony Hall. "Puppets Take the Pops" also will be performed Tuesday when the orchestra celebrates Arthur Fiedler Night, named for the former conductor who made the Pops a household name.

The puppets will act out Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" and provide visual accompaniment to a suite of several short pieces by composer Leroy Anderson, who arranged music for the Pops. It will include a virtual tour of Boston performed to Anderson's best known piece, "Sleigh Ride."

There will be flamingos on roller skates, fish and giant butterflies. And it will be narrated by a 3-foot-tall plush version of Fiedler.

The production is schoolwork for the UConn students, the final product of a semester-long seminar in their studies for either a bachelor's or master's degree in puppet arts.

"I told them, I could not give them a better credit for your resume than a performance with the Boston Pops," said Bart Roccoberton Jr., the head of the program.

Kalob Martinez, a master's student from Amarillo, Texas, will be working and voicing the Fiedler puppet. He's been studying the legendary Pop's conductor's South Boston/German accent with the help of a 1970s television documentary.

Martinez said the production has given him and other students valuable experience with everything from performing to puppet building to the art of pitching ideas to a client — in this case, Lockhart and his staff.

But he acknowledges he'll be a little nervous when Fiedler is introduced to the audience at Symphony Hall for the first time since the 1970s.

"I'm hoping there will be a roar," he said. "I'm hoping it will be delightful and fun."

Lockhart said he also hopes the production will lead to further collaboration between the Pops and the puppeteers.

"It's a great resource to have this high-level art of puppetry available to us a stone's throw down the road," he said. "We can do some very interesting visual twists to our programs and it gives them an unparalleled opportunity for live performance and exposure."


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