Views & Reviews Outside the Box

Opera and imaging: none may sleep

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 06 October 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5507
  1. Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary health care, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, London
  1. p.greenhalgh{at}

I signed the consent form, confirmed that I did not have a pacemaker fitted, and took my position on the rack. The technician fitted me with headphones and ascertained my taste in music: rock, pop, jazz, or opera? Opera, please. She warned me to stay very still and pressed the button, which moved the rack into the tube. I clutched the panic button gratefully.

There was plastic in all directions, 3 inches from my face. Most people lying in this position, I mused, have probably got headaches, dizzy spells, or progressive neurological symptoms and are wondering whether they have a brain tumour. Claustrophobic reactions abort a substantial proportion of magnetic resonance imaging investigations to the head. My head was only in this machine because it was joined to my neck and thence to my shoulder, where an old sports injury had flared up. Even so, it was hard to fight off the vertigo.

After three bars of Chuck Berry (sorry, wrong tape) the aria began. I tried to imagine myself in Covent Garden (or, better, Verona). Someone clearly had a sense of irony: the tape was “Nessun Dorma” (“None May Sleep”), from the final act of Puccini’s Turandot. The suitor of a disdainful but beautiful princess has correctly answered the three questions needed to win her as his bride, but she recoils at the thought of marrying him. He gallantly offers her a get out: if she guesses his name before dawn next day, she may behead him. If she does not, she must marry him. The princess decrees that every one of her subjects must stay awake to try to find out the suitor’s name.

“Nessun Dorma” is the suitor’s song of hope: no one will sleep tonight, but tomorrow the lovely princess will be his. It was chosen as the theme tune for the 1990 World Cup in Rome, where Luciano Pavarotti performed it live along with José Carreras and Plácido Domingo to an estimated audience of 800 million people, which explains why it became the best selling classical album in history.

I wonder whether the three tenors imagined that their rich, soothing voices singing “None May Sleep” would subsequently emerge as one of the auditory stimuli of choice to distract clients from 45 minutes of AK-AK-AK-AK-AK at about the same decibel level as a pneumatic drill?


Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5507

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