Bringing Arthur Fiedler back to life — as a puppet
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What: Arthur Fiedler, returning in puppet form to star in the Boston Pops concerts "Puppets Take the Pops" and "Arthur Fiedler Night"
Where: Symphony Hall, May 21 and May 24
Peter Fiedler remembers his dad as the gentle and jovial man the public knew, albeit not one to be disrespected.
"He was good with his voice, he was strong," Fiedler said. "He could command the attention of 98 musicians in an instant, just by one 'quiet!' And believe me, I've heard him snap at me in the past, and I responded when he did that."
Imagine the attention Arthur Fiedler could have commanded if his skin were made of felt.
For two nights this week, the late conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra will be coming home to Symphony Hall — this time as a puppet. In a collaboration between the Pops and the University of Connecticut's Puppet Arts Program, both the "Puppets Take the Pops" concerts on May 21 and "Arthur Fiedler Night" on May 24 will reintroduce the maestro's spirit to a stage that's been without it for nearly 40 years.
The collaboration is rooted in the annual holiday concerts the Pops puts on at UConn's Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts. Each year, the university puts forth a representative to read " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas," alongside the orchestra. When Puppet Arts Program director Bart Roccoberton saw his number come up in 2013, he quickly made other plans.
"They called and asked if I'd read, and I told them no," he said. "I told them, someone will, but it's not going to be me."
Instead, Roccoberton delegated the job to Skip Toumalou, an orange-furred monster who'd done promo videos for the university, along with her puppeteer, then-graduate student Sarah Nolen. Obviously a departure from the concert's usual brand of guest stars, the duo made an impact on the Pops' top brass.
"It was probably the best narrator we've ever had, with the possible exception of Conan O'Brien," said Keith Lockhart, who's conducted the Pops since 1995. "It was just at an amazingly professional level. At that point, the wheels started turning for us to find an excuse to bring them to Boston audiences."
Once the date was set, Lockhart and Roccoberton decided on a two-part program. The second part would be commissioned — Roccoberton's team at UConn would pick out a handful of short works by Leroy Anderson (the Pops' "poet laureate," in Lockhart's words) and cast them with creatures.
The first part, though, would be Prokofiev's family concert fan favorite "Peter and the Wolf," which UConn had already staged with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Though they had Peter and Wolf puppets at hand, the production needed a narrator who could shoulder all the spirit the team hoped to put in. Walking on the Esplanade one night, Roccoberton found in Fiedler's statue the man for the job. He partnered with Nolen, who earned her MFA this spring, to make it happen.
"I did the initial design, and Sarah started realizing it in three dimensions," he said. "She's added so much to it that I said to her, 'We're taking co-ownership of this. We co-designed this puppet.' "
By Nolen's estimate, it wasn't all that complex.
"Really, if you put a mustache and a chin on a puppet, it pretty much looks like Arthur Fiedler," she joked.
A hand-rod puppet, Fiedler works with one hand moving his mouth and another controlling the thin rods attached to his hands. Nolen also gave the conductor's conductors the option to portray Fiedler with gloved hands (picture Ernie or Rowlf), should the program call for baton work or some extra flourish. And while the mustache and chin were musts, Nolen studied photos and a WGBH documentary to split the likeness perfectly between man and puppet.
"So it was: What are the features that really stand out?" she said. "And those were, for me, his cheeks and his nose, and his mustache. And his hairline is very distinct, too. He's got this great maestro hair.
"I made him more of a silver fox," she added, "so he's got a little less white and a touch of gray, which is nice."
Since the Pops had planned Fiedler for a speaking role, they needed a voice actor who could do as much justice. The team reached out to Peter Fiedler, a regular fixture at his father's yearly tribute concert and the owner of "a pretty good Arthur Fiedler impression," to advise.
"People think that because he's from Boston, he should 'pahk his cah at Hahvahd Yahd,' and that whole thing, but it's quite not that way," he said. "He had a bit of a Brahmin English intonation, but very unique, very special, very forceful and purposeful."
All said, when Arthur Fiedler makes his return to Symphony Hall for Saturday's matinee, in voice and in likeness, it'll be as if he hardly left. "It's a really nice tribute to him, and I know he'd be very, very touched by it," he said. "We're bringing him back to life a little bit."
He'll just be a little fuzzier, is all.