Danielle Birrittella is wild-spirited in her creative endeavors. A classically trained opera singer, she now experiments in a multi-dimensional world that is sonic and visually immersive. Her ethereal chamber pop-like music compositions of her project Dia, which put out the Tiny Ocean EP on Manimal Records, have captured the attention of many, including NPR’s Tiny Desk. With her current work in development, Sonnets To Orpheus, she takes an even deeper plunge into the unknown – a realm in which she earnestly and amusedly claims she is not the “doer.” Orpheus is a sensory exploration that differs from the more intimate vision she carries with Dia, but one that shares a desire for divulgence and invocation.
Birrittella was raised on a Hindu ashram outside of Boston. Whether it was the vibrational impact of singing ragas, or being given the Sanskrit name Mahashakti, which translates as “the ultimate feminine power inherent in all creation,” Birrittella sought BIG expression. As a young girl, musicals initially influenced her pursuit to find the grandness she sought for her singing voice. Throughout her teens and into her twenties, Birrittella set forth on a rigorous path to becoming a professional opera singer. She studied music and theatre at NYU, received an MFA from CalArts, learned a trio of Romance languages, acquired Italian citizenship and attended Young Artist Programs. Conflict festered in her classical training, however; one in which tradition and perfectionism clashed with her quest to rediscover unencumbered levels of vulnerability in performance. Her uncertainty resulted in a break away from the opera path.
Birrittella’s brother, Sasha, gifted her a ukulele the following Christmas. She had never composed music or accompanied herself on instruments, but the self-sufficiency discovered from playing songs opened up a whole new world of songwriting. As she wrote in fragments, she wondered, “What is this?”
“Discovering my own ability to create something complete – not needing the validation of being cast in an opera or a show – changed my life. Yes, we all love to be respected and recognized, but it’s ultimately about making the work that satisfies the moment,” Birritella said.
For Sonnets To Orpheus, creative synchronicities became a full circle endeavor as Birrittella’s discoveries made way for serendipitous, collaborative opportunities.
When her friend Chris Rountree of wild Up offered to compose a short song cycle for ukulele, cello and voice, Birrittella felt that there needed to be some sort of foundational text to work off. She then recalled a fragment from a poem, “and made herself a bed inside my ear.” After researching the line, she discovered it was part of a much larger set of sonnets by Rainer Maria Rilke; the English version she loved was by translator Stephen Mitchell. Birrittella was able to connect with Mitchell and was given the rights to his translation.
“The project began evolving… and I was asking, what if this, what if that…what if I asked a wish-list of composers to each score a sonnet, what if we had visuals, what if there was a whole world for these songs? I kept asking and people kept saying yes. It was incredible.”
“We decided to use a string quartet as our instrumentation because I had read in Stephen Mitchell’s introduction that, ‘Sonnets To Orpheus, in their subtler way, are string quartets to [Rilke’s Duino] Elegies’ full orchestra’. The decision was made for us. We have harmonium on a few songs as well; an homage to the sacred nature of the pieces.”
“This project was my first time writing any sort of chamber music. My piece, Sonnet II, And it was almost a girl, is from that poem I had recalled. In contrast to my Dia songs, the specificity of Rilke’s imagery fostered a complete trust and freedom to work with the text as a base. It allowed me to forgive myself with where the piece would go because it was already there. I must have been acquiescing to what he and Mitchell had on the page. It was a truly joyous process.”
The more a world is conjured, the more fully it can be experienced – and ultimately, shared with others. “We are evoking the world of Orpheus, and Rilke for that matter. This is about nature, sensuality, death, light, surrender and transcendence,” said Birrittella. Among Birrittella’s collaborators are: Alexis Macnab, Keith Skretch, Hana Sooyeon Kim, and Yao Zhang.
Alongside a collective of talented artists, Birrittella believes each individual contribution to the work – whether visual, sonic, or choreographic – stands strongly on its own, which ultimately strengthens the culmination of the piece in its entirety.“We aren’t inventing something completely new. We are taking existing threads and weaving them together into a new fabric. I hope it is a beautiful fabric.” Orpheus is an offering, creating space for others to feel some Thing cathartic, whatever that may mean to an audience member then and there.
And it was almost a girl and came to be
out of this single joy of song and lyre
and through her green veils shone forth radiantly
and made herself a bed inside my ear.
And slept there. And her sleep was everything:
the awesome trees, the distances I had felt
so deeply that I could touch them, meadows in spring:
all wonders that had ever seized my heart.
She slept the world. Singing god, how was that first
sleep so perfect that she had no desire
ever to wake? See: she arose and slept.
Where is her death now? Ah, will you discover
this theme before your song consumes itself?–
Where is she vanishing?… A girl almost…
J. Alex Mathews is a Los Angeles based blend of poet, dancer, yogi and arts advocate. She grew up internationally and bi-coastally in the U.S. and has lived in LA since 2007. She graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in World Arts and Cultures/Dance and she is a certified instructor in Vinyasa Yoga and Kundalina Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. Since 2012 she has worked as the Program Manager for the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, which gives unrestricted prizes to five mid career, risk-taking artists annually. Since 2014 she has served as the Associate Director and Director of Programming for Dance Resource Center, a local service organization that is the hub and voice for Greater Los Angeles dance. In the past, she worked as an administrator and dancer in residence at Bates Dance Festival and as a Managing Director with Pentacle (DanceWorks, Inc.) She believes in challenging and revitalizing public engagement with the performing arts as well as enhancing sustainable opportunities for artists. She is grateful for contributing as a nominator and evaluator for renowned grants and attending conferences for Arts 4 LA, Dance/USA, Grant-Makers in the Arts and Western Arts Alliance. She continues to investigate her role in the arts through creating, teaching, advocacy and curation/production. She was recently invited to join an art collective called “Remnants,” the SoCal Leadership Network through the LA Chamber of Commerce and soon, will begin Arts for LA’s ACTIVATE fellowship for Cultural Policy.