A viola player has won his battle against London’s Royal Opera House, in Britain’s High Court. Musician, Christopher Goldscheider, claimed he suffered what court documents referred to as “acoustic shock” after sitting in front of an 18-strong brass section during rehearsals for Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” at the opera house in 2012. Goldscheider’s attorney, Theo Huckle, said his client was exposed to an average noise level around 91 decibels up to 131 decibels, which equates to the sound level of a jet engine, over the course of three hours.
Despite the fact that the viola player was wearing earplugs during the rehearsals, he suffered unrepairable long-term physical effects, including hypersensitivity to noise. This has allegedly forced him to give up his career of playing music, and he has been unable to even listen to music thereafter.
Goldscheider claimed damages for symptoms including tinnitus, hyperacusis, and dizziness. He said, “With this condition, if you are exposed to normal sounds, unfortunately, they become incredibly painful…I suppose the nearest analogy is if you imagine for a normal person to walk on normal ground and then you imagine walking barefoot on glass.”
Goldscheider has to wear ear guards to carry out everyday household tasks such as preparing food. He has been unable to listen to his 18-year-old son Ben’s music, who is one of the country’s most renowned young French horn players.
The Royal Opera House argued in court that the musician had developed a natural hearing impairment, commonly known as Meniere’s disease. They had also argued a balance had to be struck between preserving the artistic integrity of the music while doing everything possible to reduce the risk of damage to musicians’ hearing.
However, Justice Davies responded to this defense, “I regard the defendant’s contention that Meniere’s disease developed at the rehearsal as stretching the concept of coincidence too far.” In her ruling, she added further that “the reliance upon artistic value implies that statutory health and safety requirements must cede to the needs and wishes of the artistic output of the Opera company, its managers and conductors…Such a stance is unacceptable. Musicians are entitled to the protection of the law, as is any other worker.”
Goldscheider hesitantly celebrated the victory, reacting to the judgment by saying, “As you can imagine a lawsuit of this magnitude takes its strain on everyone. Not just on me but my family, my children…Here we are today, and I’m just so overjoyed at the judge’s decision and I hope it will prevent any more musicians being injured from today onwards.”
As he rightfully foreshadowed, the case won by Goldscheider is likely to carry huge implications for the music industry in general, particularly with regard to the health and safety of musicians. It marks the first time a judge has been willing to consider the music industry’s legal obligations towards musicians’ hearing. The case also marks the first time acoustic shock has been noted as a compensation-worthy condition.
The opera house said it was “surprised and disappointed” by the judgment. Along with other orchestras, it will now have to re-assess existing policies, including the layout of orchestra space, for all performances going forward. The amount awarded in damages is still to be determined.