Viola player wins Royal Opera House case for hearing damage

Musician suffered ‘acoustic shock’ from horn section during Wagner performance

A classical musician has won a landmark case for damages against the Royal Opera House after claiming his hearing was irreparably damaged by the horn section during a thunderous rendition of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

In the first case of its kind, Christopher Goldscheider, a viola player, claimed he was exposed to unacceptable noise levels in the pit at Covent Garden as the orchestra rehearsed Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) in 2012.

Goldscheider, 45, from Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, said he suffered “acoustic shock” after a blast from the 18-strong brass section, situated directly behind him, caused the overall volume in the pit to reach at least 137 decibels – about the volume of a jet engine from 100ft away.

Mrs Justice Nicola Davies ruled in his favour on the issues of breach of duty and causation of injury, with damages to be assessed. Goldscheider’s claim for lost earnings alone is £750,000. He says he has been forced to give up playing or even listening to music.

The Royal Opera House Covent Garden Foundation was refused permission to appeal against the ruling, although it can still apply directly to the Court of Appeal.

Theo Huckle QC, representing Goldscheider, said the effects of the injury - including hypersensitivity to noise - had “seriously diminished his life in all significant respects”. Goldscheider, he added, was exposed to an average noise level of 91 decibels over a three-hour period and, despite him wearing ear plugs, that gave rise to a “substantial risk of injury”.

The foundation had argued that Goldscheider’s condition was not caused by playing in the orchestra, but had in fact been the result of his coincidentally developing Meniere’s disease at around the same time. David Platt QC said he had been provided with ear protection and the opera house had gone “as far and, if anything, further than the reasonable employer” to reduce noise levels.

The judge said the foundation was in breach of a number of control of noise at work regulations, and that it was this noise that had led to Goldscheider’s hearing problems. Had the foundation complied with its statutory duty, Goldscheider would not have been exposed to the level of noise he endured, she added.

She was satisfied that the noise levels at the rehearsal were within the range identified as causing acoustic shock. “The index exposure was the playing of the principal trumpet in the right ear of the claimant whether it was one sound or a cluster of sounds of short duration,” Davies said.

“It was that exposure which resulted in the claimant sustaining acoustic shock which led to the injury which he sustained and the symptoms which have developed, from which he continues to suffer.”

Goldscheider’s solicitor, Chris Fry, said the acoustic shock had brought his client’s glittering career to an end. Goldscheider, who took up the viola at the age of five, and studied music in Prague and the UK, had played on stage with Kylie Minogue and live with the Three Tenors in front of 100,000 people in Barcelona.

“This is the first time that the court has explored the music industry’s legal obligations towards the hearing of musicians, and the first time that acoustic shock has been recognised as a compensatable condition by the court,” Fry wrote in a blog reporting the ruling.

“The decision leaves insurers for the Royal Opera House responsible for a £750,000 compensation claim, and legal costs in addition, an urgent need to rethink its policies and procedures, a possible re-design of ‘The Pit’, and probable claims against them by other musicians.”


Damien Gayle

The GuardianTramp

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