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Musician sues ROH over ruined hearing

BBC News BBC News 1/04/2016 By Clive Coleman
Chris Goldscheider © BBC Chris Goldscheider

A renowned viola player is suing the Royal Opera House for ruining his hearing and his career during rehearsals of Wagner's Die Walkure.

Chris Goldscheider played the viola with some of the world's greatest orchestras © BBC Chris Goldscheider played the viola with some of the world's greatest orchestras

Chris Goldscheider claims his hearing was irreversibly damaged by brass instruments put immediately behind him.

Headphones: The musician has to wear ear protectors to carry out every day tasks © BBC The musician has to wear ear protectors to carry out every day tasks

The Musicians' Union says hearing damage is a major problem for musicians playing in orchestras.

Royal Opera House: The Royal Opera House denies it is responsible for Chris Goldscheider's hearing issue © BBC The Royal Opera House denies it is responsible for Chris Goldscheider's hearing issue

The Royal Opera House denies it is responsible, but around a quarter of its players suffer hearing illnesses.

In court documents seen by the BBC, Goldscheider claims that in 2012 his hearing was "irreversibly damaged" during rehearsals of Richard Wagner's thunderous Die Walkure "from brass instruments placed immediately behind him" in the famous "pit" at the Royal Opera House.

The sound peaked at around 137 decibels, which is roughly the sound of a jet engine. The court documents say the noise "created an immediate and permanent traumatic threshold shift".

Goldscheider says this amounts to "acoustic shock", one effect of which is that the brain hugely amplifies ordinary sounds.

Music has been in most of Goldscheider's life: "For the last quarter of a century I've been a professional musician. Music was my income. It was my everything," he says.

The son of a composer, from the age of 10 he spent in excess of six hours a day practising and rehearsing. He played the viola with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and BBC Symphony orchestras, before joining the prestigious Royal Opera House orchestra in 2002.

Career highlights have included performing live with the famous Three Tenors to 100,000 people at the Barcelona Camp Nou football stadium, and with Kylie Minogue on MTV. He has also recorded with artists including the band 10cc.

Goldscheider says the effects of the hearing damage have been devastating.

"Ordinary sounds like banging cups and glasses together is a very painful noise," he says.

"My newborn daughter last year was crying so much I actually got noise-induced vertigo because of my injury and I ended up in bed for three weeks."

The musician says he has lost the career he loved and his mental health has deteriorated as he struggles to cope with the impact and effects of his hearing problems.

Life has changed dramatically. To carry out ordinary every day tasks such as preparing food, Chris has to wear ear protectors. Especially upsetting is that he had been unable to listen to his 18-year-old son Ben - one of the country's outstanding young French horn players.

"Ben is a fantastic musician. I haven't been able to listen to him play or practice since my injury. I've missed him playing concerts and winning competitions. I can't even bear him practising in an upstairs room when I am downstairs in the house," he says.

At the time of his injury, Goldscheider was provided with hearing protection capable of reducing the noise by up to 28 decibels, but his lawyers claim this was insufficient. They say he was not given enough training in how to use it and protect himself, and that the noise levels should not have been so dangerously high.

The Royal Opera House does not accept the rehearsal noise caused Goldscheider's injury, and denies that is responsible.

In a statement it told the BBC: "Mr Goldscheider's compensation claim against the Royal Opera House is a complex medico-legal issue, which has been going on for some time and is still under investigation.

"All sides are keen to reach a resolution. The matter is now the subject of legal proceedings, and in the circumstances it wouldn't be appropriate to comment any further at this stage."

And according to Goldscheider's solicitor Chris Fry, part of the Royal Opera House's defence breaks new legal ground.

"Essentially what is being said is that the beautiful artistic output justifies damaging the hearing of the musicians performing it," he says.

"That's never been tested by the courts. We don't think the court is likely to uphold that, in particular where it's clear steps could be taken to maintain the beautiful sound and protect hearing at the same time."

Hearing damage suffered by rock musicians is well documented. Years ago The Who's Pete Townsend went public about his hearing loss and famously said a doctor had told him: "You're not actually going deaf, but I'd advise you to learn to lip read."

Brian Johnson of AC/DC and Ozzy Osborne have also been affected. But what is far less well known is that it is a significant problem in the more sedate and sophisticated world of classical music.

There are around 100 players in the orchestra at the Royal Opera House. The BBC has learnt more than a quarter report occasional or mild hearing illness, and that in the 2013/14 season, there were seven cases of sickness absence related to noise problems and a total of 117 weeks of sick leave taken. That's not music to anyone's ears.

Morris Stemp of the Musicians Union says there are many reasons for the hearing damage suffered by classical musicians.

"Conductors are allowed to ride roughshod over health and safety considerations," he says. "They put players on the stage where they will be in harm's way. And instruments are now louder than they ever were before because of the materials they are now made from."

Add to that the increased number of live concerts prompted in part by the drop in income from CD sales, and there is a mix of elements that can put the hearing of orchestra players at serious risk.

Chris Goldscheider's case casts light on a little known or discussed problem, and will be watched closely by all those in the classical music world.

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