THE BLOG

The Court Room Instead of the Concert Hall?

08/30/2010 07:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It must be summer; some of the most interesting music news is coming from the law courts.

A few weeks ago the English press went all atwitter over a claim brought by tenor David Rendall against the Ministry of Culture of Denmark, owner of the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen.

Mr. Rendall claims that he sustained £250,000 in damages as a result of personal injuries suffered during an April 2005 performance of Verdi's Aida at the Royal Danish Theatre. It must have been a doozy of a fourth act. According to the Telegraph (which seems to have gotten a good deal of its information from a press release issued by Mr. Rendall's attorneys -- they don't call them solicitors for nothing) the basis of the complaint is that:

During the performance, two stage levels were raised to give the impression that I was underground in a tomb. On the night in question the stage above went sideways instead of up, resulting in the destruction of the set. I was knocked down at least fifteen feet and tried to crawl to safety to avoid being crushed.

Mr. Rendall alleges that as a result of this catastrophe he shattered his hip, hurt his knee, and his shoulders in addition to having been put in fear of his life. The Telegraph reports that thereafter he has had his left knee and hip replaced and that he has undergone surgical procedures on his shoulders. He has not worked since 2008.

"The Royal Danish Theatre admitted liability for the fall and made a statutory payment to Mr. Rendall under Danish health and safety law. The tenor... is seeking £250,000 in damages for injuries suffered and loss of earnings."

Had this injury occurred in an American opera house, Mr. Rendall would have been limited to the damages provided for in the state Workers Compensation Act. It appears, however, that in Denmark one can seek compensation from the Danish Industrial Injuries Board and, if unsatisfied with its decision, head off to a court of law. Mr. Rendall has done just that in Copenhagen City Court.

Assuming that the Danish concept of a statute of limitations differs from that prevailing here in Connecticut (over five years from the date of injury seems a rather long time to have waited to commence litigation, especially since the house admitted fault and made its "statutory payment" in March of 2006), it ought to be an interesting case.

I'd be fascinated to know how a sixty-one year old tenor plans to prove up his case of lost earnings. He claims that he can "...still sing very well, but I can't do what some directors want on stage. I can't kneel, for instance. If I fell down, as required in some operas, I can't get up without stage hands helping me. This has ruined my career." Since Mr. Rendall is not known as "The Tumbling Tenor" -- that's Dean Anthony's fach -- I am hard-pressed to understand how his inability to meet the demands imposed upon singers by "some directors" ruins a career, especially when other directors still follow the "stand and sing" (or "park and bark") school of stage direction.

Opera singers have never been known for their mobility and graceful stage movements. A complete inability to act, brigaded with an unshakable refusal to move on stage, hardly impeded the operatic career of the late Luciano Pavarotti. A soprano who was once observed to move on stage like a parade float when she moved at all was in constant demand until she developed vocal problems. With all due respect, this is precisely why the insurance industry offers a product known as "same occupation" coverage under a Long Term Disability policy.

The other legal news concerns the complete failure of Donald Rosenberg's suit against the Cleveland Plain Dealer, for which he toils, and against the Musical Arts Association of Cleveland, the governing body of the Cleveland Orchestra.

In brief, Mr. Rosenberg was the highly regarded and much-lauded music critic of the Plain Dealer for many years. Part of his "beat" involved reviewing performances of the Cleveland Orchestra, and it seemed that he did not care much for the interpretive, programming and/or technical skills of the orchestra's music director, Franz Welser-Möst. After a good deal of complaining to the Plain Dealer about Rosenberg's published comments on the part of the Cleveland Orchestra and its friends, Rosenberg was reassigned to other duties at the newspaper without reduction in pay or status.

Rosenberg sued his employer and his editor claiming that their actions professionally injured him and resulted in much distress, emotional upheaval and so on. After the pre-trial rulings were made, Rosenberg was left with a claim against the Plain Dealer for age discrimination and against the Musical Arts Association and several of its higher-ups for interference with contractual relations and defamation. In other words, as far as the jury was concerned he sued his employer for replacing him on the Cleveland Orchestra assignment with a younger reviewer, and he sued the Orchestra for bad-mouthing him to his bosses, resulting in the reassignment. A Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas was kept busy for four weeks trying this claim, with the jury eventually returning a verdict in favor of the defendants on all counts.

Mr. Rosenberg is, without doubt, entitled to whatever opinions he happens to hold about the Cleveland Orchestra, its management, its players, its repertoire choices, its performance venues, and Franz Welser-Möst himself. By the same token, the orchestra management, its various supporters in the community and Mr. Welser-Möst are entitled to hold and voice as loudly and as vigorously as they wish the opinions that they have regarding Mr. Rosenberg. This is, withal, sort of basic First Amendment law.

The difficulty here is that Mr. Rosenberg, although possessing a right to his opinions, does not have a right to his sinecure as music reviewer with his beat established by the Bill of Rights or the Ohio Constitution. I am troubled by the seeming lack of equivalence in Mr. Rosenberg's analysis: He purports to have the unfettered right to demand, directly or indirectly, the sacking of Franz Welser-Möst, but at the same time he objects to the Cleveland Orchestra and its friends having the same right to demand, directly or indirectly, his sacking or reassignment.

That editorial judgment is not infallible is hardly news, but by the same token seeking to make editorial judgment actionable in a court of law is news... and deucedly troublesome news at that. It has often been remarked that one ought not to engage in a battle of words with someone who buys ink in fifty-five gallon drums; perhaps that resulted in a wee bit of hubris of the sort that caused Mr. Rosenberg to believe that the rights he sought to vindicate for himself were not the rights of others as well.

Many of Mr. Rosenberg's supporters were apoplectic over the notion that the publisher of the Plain Dealer was a member of the Cleveland Orchestra's board, which was said to raise "the appearance of impropriety." Reasonable minds can differ on whether this appeared to be improper. However, there ought to be no dispute that this is not in any legally cognizable way improper. It isn't. But the goal was to portray Mr. Rosenberg as the victim of a scandalous vendetta on the part of the Cleveland Orchestra. This is what made an otherwise mundane terms and conditions of employment claim big news.

Like Mr. Rosenberg, back in the days of yore I had arts organizations complain bitterly to my editor about my printed comments, and although my editor was steadfast in his support, it was still a disconcerting (pardon the pun) experience. Despite that fact, I never doubted that it was within the editor's province to re-assign me, question me closely about the comments I had made, or terminate my services if such was his desire. It comes under the general heading "Part of the bargain when you accept a paycheck." My editor, back then, administered the cruelest possible cut to the complaining organizations: He blithely stopped sending people out to review any of their performances. They complained about that, too. What a surprise.