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Video games. Outdoor shows. These music groups are thinking outside the Zoom box

Elizabeth Kinder performed "Una voce poco fa" from "The Barber of Seville" in Boston's North End.Matt Conti/

Are you in the mood for music, but can’t bring yourself to spend another hour on Zoom or watch yet another concert video from the vaults? Here are some alternatives: These three local music groups have demonstrated an impressive level of ingenuity, taking full advantage of summer weather and even a popular video game to create musical offerings for the here and now.


In early March, North End Music and Performing Arts Center (NEMPAC) was almost done casting its annual main stage opera, Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” It was intended as homage to the North End’s history of artisans and craftsmanship, with a new bilingual Italian-Spanish libretto that nodded to the Seville setting as well as the families NEMPAC serves, many of whom speak Spanish at home.


The pandemic forced a stop to the production, but NEMPAC found a way to make the show go on. In early June, three singers used the scenery of the North End as their stage for favorite scenes from the opera. On Aug. 8, NEMPAC will repeat the performance in various locations around Charlestown and the North End.

At the beginning of the pandemic, livestreamed musical events were an easier sell. But by now, our lives are “oversaturated” with Zoom, said NEMPAC Opera Project artistic director Alexandra Dietrich. “Our working lives have acclimated to being online, and it’s very hard to ask someone after being online from 9 to 5 to then tune in to two more hours of sitting in a chair and watching on a screen.” So now, she suggests, live music is an even greater treasure.

Scenes featuring the three lead characters (Rosina, Count Almaviva, and Figaro) were blocked according to conservative physical distancing guidelines, keeping a space of 15 feet between characters while singing. It helped matters that within the story, the would-be lovebirds can’t easily meet — in some scenes, one is on a balcony and another the ground floor, or they’re otherwise separated physically. But plot magic keeps them singing together. “We’re able to sing comfortably, not physically touching one another, but still acting and engaged in this theme,” Dietrich said.


Elizabeth Kinder and Gray Leiper performed a scene from "The Barber of Seville."Matt Conti/

NEMPAC also started weekly Saturday outdoor performances in the form of a collaboration with North End restaurant Tresca, where the balcony — home to Table 77, a highly sought proposal spot — has become a temporary stage. Since the series started in May, singers have endured all the slings and arrows of New England’s weather, including a thunderstorm that dropped in on David Rivera Bozón’s performance of Puccini’s blockbuster aria “Nessun dorma.”

“We thought it was going to be a one- or two-weekend event,” Dietrich said. “But the reaction initially ... there would be people just bursting into tears at hearing live music.” More information:


The late-March release of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” couldn’t have been more timely. The video game for the Nintendo Switch was already one of the year’s most anticipated releases. But as the world spun into the throes of a deadly pandemic and “social distancing” became part of the collective vocabulary, the game offered a tantalizing escape to a dreamscape island where players could explore, befriend cute animals, expand and decorate their homes to their heart’s content — and then open their doors to host or visit friends who also owned the game.


“Animal Crossing” reigned over the Nintendo Switch’s online store for three months straight as millions downloaded the game while stranded at home. Two of those people were singers Celeste Pellegrino and Larisa Bainton, who cofounded the Due Donne Productions opera company last year while graduate students at New England Conservatory. Due Donne had received a grant from the school, initially to fund live performances. After the pandemic hit, the school still wanted to give them the grant, Bainton said. They just had to find a new way to use it.

Fortunately, they already had their big idea: the world’s first opera staged inside “Animal Crossing.” A small cast recorded a 35-minute version of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” sung in English with piano accompaniment. The cofounders built sets on their islands, and downloaded costumes and other set dressings found in the game’s thriving custom-design community.

Due Donne Productions' recent production of "Hansel and Gretel" was staged entirely inside the "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" video game.Due Donne Productions

“When you put on a production in real life, you have a costume budget. Here, I was like ‘We can spend unlimited Bells!’ ” Pellegrino joked, referring to the in-game currency.

Filming the in-game avatars as they acted along to the recording took about a week and a half. The hardest part was gathering everyone’s avatar on one island, which included sitting through the lengthy animation that accompanies each new avatar’s arrival. Then, if the game’s servers hiccuped, everyone would get booted back to their own island and the whole process would start again.


But these complications haven’t dissuaded Due Donne from planning their next “Animal Crossing” opera. Massenet’s “Cendrillon” is planned for later this year. Find it at


At first, Mistral Music director Julie Scolnik was adamant that the live music offerings she organizes in Brookline’s Knyvet Square were not concerts. No, absolutely not.

“It was just musicians reading music outside, because we missed it, and we knew [listeners] missed it too,” she said. “We may fall apart, it could be a trainwreck.”

Now she’s thinking of scrapping that disclaimer. Her daughter has been encouraging her to stop selling herself short, for one. What’s more, it’s been a few weeks since she and her cellist son Sasha Scolnik-Brower hauled instruments and music stands to the square and e-mailed a few friends and neighbors in case they wanted to come listen.

Some of the accessories and accoutréments of concerts are already present. In hopes that outdoor audiences would follow Mistral to their regular Brookline venues once indoor concerts are safe again, Scolnik created lawn signs with the Mistral logo. And in the battle for sonic dominance between a cello and a passing truck, the truck will always win, so Scolnik also hired an audio engineer.

Musicians have been eager to join. The size of the participating ensemble has grown as large as six, with a July 31 performance that included a Brahms sextet. Scolnik started dipping into Mistral’s coffers to pay the musicians a token sum — not as much as for a typical rehearsed concert, but they’re still professional musicians giving their time to offer listeners a little summer night respite. And there haven’t been any trainwrecks.


Two more outdoor offerings are planned for August, with dates depending on weather; information is available on the group’s Facebook page. For the final event of the season, she’s planning to pull together a small chamber orchestra and enlist Sasha (who is also a conductor) to lead a Mozart symphony and possibly Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” More information:

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her @knitandlisten.