Behind the Cartoons

by Emmanuelle Ayrton

Born in Paris, France, I have always had two passions: drawing and music.

After graduating from Parsons School of Design, I worked at Carla Hall Design Group in New York and later as a freelance graphic designer in France and the Netherlands. While in Amsterdam, I met my husband, Patrick, a British harpsichordist and conductor. After the birth of our first daughter, we moved to Burgundy, to a house full of musical instruments, pots of paint, color pencils, and good wine.

At the local music school, I met Barbara Marcus, an American singing teacher from New York, and started taking singing lessons at the ripe age of 35. I became an enthusiastic amateur singer and now regularly perform with various choirs and as a soloist.

In 2010, I published my first illustrated book on singing, Le Chant sans chichis, prefaced by the renowned New York-based vocal pedagogue and opera coach, David L. Jones. In 2014, Edition Peters published my second illustrated book, Silence! Singers at Work!, prefaced by the internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. Around the end of that year, I started drawing Sunday cartoons for the MET Orchestra Musicians’ website and social media outlets.

I currently combine my two passions, illustrating my experiences and empathetic vision of vocal and instrumental music. Through this I humbly try to pay homage to the wonderful Gerard Hoffnung (1925-1959), one of the rare artists to depict the musical world with both a unique sense of humor and the understanding of an insider.

It is treated as a given that, at a major opera house, the orchestra will perform at the highest level. After all, it’s a professional entity. The fact that it is a collection of tremendously gifted individuals, each with their own story to tell, is beside the point. After all, who cares about their anxieties, emotions, doubts, and technical challenges?

Well, I care! This is what I am trying to embody in my drawings - a way to connect to the public by showing them the real lives of the musicians they love hearing, rather than the polished façade that is so often associated with classical music. The quality and commitment demanded of modern-day musicians often obscures other facets of their personalities. Rest assured, though, one needs a strong sense of humor, coupled with a huge amount of grit and flexibility, to flourish amidst the pressures of the job! It has also changed my own perspective; I have learned so much, trying to understand their various challenges, that I now hear music differently. Just as I need to imagine a particular scene in three dimensions before starting to sketch, creating those cartoons has changed the way I listen to and appreciate music. My hearing has become enriched and more three-dimensional. Needless to say, my empathy and admiration for those musicians has also grown tremendously.

Once we have booked tickets for an opera, it is, of course, great to read program notes about the plot and the composer's life. But what about learning how precisely hand-crafted reeds affect the sound of a oboe, for instance? Or how “low” breathing will enhance a player's sound, or how string players blend and articulate together, or how a percussionist chooses different mallets according to the needs of the music? It is not only every bit as interesting - it turns us into better listeners, too! A great audience is not just well-informed; it needs to organically connect to the incredible splendor of artistry offered to it.

For example, when I heard Stephanie Mortimore speak about an incredibly long note she has to sustain on the piccolo, I wanted to illustrate the particular passage of La Bohème she was referring to from her point of view. I contacted her for the fingerings and details of this infamous 18 bar-long high A. After all, don't we all hate it when, in a film or drawing, somebody holds an instrument completely incorrectly? Through her various facial expressions, the score, and some chemical molecules, we understand the price one sometimes has to pay in order to create a musical atmosphere by conveying tension and anticipation.

In a way, it's a bit like wine or cuisine tasting. Isn't it amazing and exhilarating when we suddenly detect that subtle touch of dried fruit or saffron aroma amidst a sea of flavors? Similarly, instead of hearing this great magma of sound, we might be able to single out a middle voice in the instrumental texture, appreciating anew how it stabilizes and guides the action above it. And if we suddenly realize, “Hey! That was David, or Billy, or Jessica…”, we have a direct emotional connection, not only to the music, but to those producing it. This is an active, rather than a reactive, way of listening, and the energy it helps to create makes a huge difference to the performers.

No, classical musicians are neither boring, nor arrogant and "stuck-up". Often they are the humblest and wittiest guys on the block, and it's worth getting to know them!