Its roaring brass section is so epic and loud that Francis Ford Coppola used it in the iconic helicopter-attack scene from “Apocalypse Now.”
But now Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre” opera, featuring its famed “Ride of the Valkyries” section, is at the center of a legal judgment won by a viola player against the renowned Royal Opera House in London.
Violist Christopher Goldscheider claimed he sustained irreversible damage to his hearing during a 2012 rehearsal of Wagner’s composition – an injury he says ruined his career.
Seated in a “cramped pit” before 18 to 20 brass players, Goldscheider said he suffered “acoustic shock” after being exposed to noise levels that reached peaks of 137 dB – roughly the volume of a military jet taking off, according to a ruling Wednesday by Britain’s High Court.
In an 83-page judgment, Justice Nicola Davies ruled that the Royal Opera House failed to protect the hearing of its musicians, in breach of the Control of Noise at Work Regulations law of 2005.
Davies said musicians “are entitled to the protection of the law as is any other worker.”
Case ‘will send shockwaves’
Goldscheider, who filed the lawsuit in 2016 claiming 750,000 pounds ($1.05 million) in lost earnings, said he was unable to continue his career as classical musician because of the injuries suffered at the rehearsal. Damages are still to be assessed.
“This case has significance and will send shockwaves across the Music Business,” Goldscheider’s solicitor, Chris Fry, said in a blog post.
“The Music Business has considered itself exempt from the same regulatory requirements as all other sectors because of the artistic nature of its output. This in our view has always been a dismissive view from an industry which creates and sells ‘noise’ as a product.”
The ruling is historic because it marks the first time that “acoustic shock” has been recognized as worthy of compensation by a British court, according to the BBC.
The Royal Opera House claimed in a statement that acoustic shock does not exist and that if it did, Goldscheider did not have it. They argued he instead had developed Meniere’s disease, a chronic inner-ear disorder whose symptoms include vertigo.
But Justice Davies dismissed this view, saying: “I regard the defendant’s contention that Meniere’s disease developed at the rehearsal as stretching the concept of coincidence too far.”
In a statement after the ruling, the Royal Opera House said its expert medical advice indicated 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,” the Royal Opera House told the BBC.
“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 Royal Opera House said it “will consider carefully” whether to appeal the judgment.
A career ruined
Goldscheider, 45, started playing violin at the age of 5 and the viola at about 21, Fry said. He was promoted to number six viola at the Royal Opera House after joining the orchestra as number eleven in 2002. Over the years he shared the stage with everyone from Kylie Minogue to the Three Tenors.
But after that fateful rehearsal of Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” Goldscheider’s career was over, Fry said.
Despite his use of earplugs, the brass section “playing directly behind him, in a confined area, at the same time at different frequencies and volumes, created a wall of sound which was completely different to anything he had previously experienced,” Justice Davies said in the judgment.
Four trumpets, four trombones, nine French horns and one tuba created a “direct line of fire” which was “excruciatingly loud and painful,” the judge wrote.
After the session, Goldscheider went home and started to experience pain in both ears along with increasing dizziness, according to the ruling.
He tried to return to work on a number of occasions but found it impossible. “He would feel terribly nauseous, extremely unwell from the pain in his right ear, he felt dizzy and found it difficult to walk,” Davies said in the ruling.
Goldscheider left the orchestra in 2014 and moved to the countryside to lessen his exposure to noise.
Acoustic shock, which includes symptoms such as tinnitus, hyperacusis, and dizziness, also wrecked Goldscheider’s personal life, as he told the BBC.
“With this condition if you are exposed to normal sounds, unfortunately they become incredibly painful,” he said. “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 told the BBC he was “overjoyed” at the ruling, “and I hope it will prevent any more musicians being injured from today onwards.”