HEALTH & SAFETY
Live events sector
Chris Goldscheider, a former Royal Opera House viola player has won a landmark High Court judgment after he suffered a life-changing hearing injury at a rehearsal of Wagner’s Die Walkure in 2012. The claim came from a rehearsal on the 1st September 2012, Mr Goldscheider was seated directly in front of the 18 strong brass section of the orchestra for a rehearsal in the orchestra pit at the Royal Opera House. Evidence presented showed that during that rehearsal, the noise levels exceeded 137 decibels, roughly equivalent to that of a jet engine 100 feet away. Despite wearing ear defenders Mr Goldscheider’s hearing was irreversibly damaged and he claimed damages for acoustic shock, a condition with symptoms including tinnitus, hyperacusis and dizziness. He told the BBC: “With this condition if you are exposed to normal sounds, unfortunately they become incredibly painful” adding “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.”
Mr Goldscheider studied in Prague and the UK and played with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and BBC Symphony orchestras. In 2002 he joined the viola section of the ROH. Mr Goldscheider left the ROH in July 2014 as a result of his injuries and can no longer perform as a musician. He now has to wear ear defenders to carry out everyday household tasks such as preparing food and cannot listen to his 18-year-old musician son Ben, one of the country’s outstanding young French horn players.
The Royal Opera House Covent Garden Foundation (ROH) had argued that acoustic shock does not exist, and that if it did, Mr Goldscheider did not have it. Their case was that he had developed an entirely natural hearing condition, known as Meniere’s disease, at exactly the same time as the super-loud, high intensity noise burst behind his right ear.
Mrs Justice Nicola Davies took a different view, stating: “I regard the defendant’s contention that Meniere’s disease developed at the rehearsal as stretching the concept of coincidence too far.”
The ROH 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, that was an inevitable feature of playing long-term in an orchestra. Mrs Justice Davies disagreed, ruling 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” and “Such a stance is unacceptable. Musicians are entitled to the protection of the law, as is any other worker.”
The judge said the ROH 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.
In a statement, the ROH said the expert medical advice it had consistently received was that long-term hearing damage could not be caused by an isolated incident of exposure to live music. “We have been at the forefront of industry-wide attempts to protect musicians from the dangers of exposure to significant levels of performance sound, in collaboration with our staff, the Musicians’ Union, acoustic engineers and the Health and Safety Executive” and “Although this judgment is restricted to our obligations as an employer under the Noise Regulations, it has potentially far-reaching implications for the Royal Opera House and the wider music industry” and “We do not believe that the Noise Regulations can be applied in an artistic institution in the same manner as in a factory, not least because in the case of the Royal Opera House, sound is not a by-product of an industrial process but is an essential part of the product itself.
The ROH will consider an appeal to the Court of Appeal (although this was refused by the judge). Theo Huckle QC, representing Goldscheider, said the effects of the injury – including hypersensitivity to noise – had “seriously diminished his life in all significant respects”. Damages, which may include loss of earnings and future loss of earnings, will be assessed at a later date.