The Eurovision song contest finals began Saturday in the seaside Israeli city of Tel Aviv with the Netherlands as favourites in a show set to include a performance from Madonna, lots of glitz and possibly some controversy.
The oh-so-glamorous and famously kitschy finale gives Israel a chance to showcase its credentials as a culturally progressive nation.
But pop stars sympathetic to the rival Israeli and Palestinian causes have taken very different positions on Israel hosting it.
Israel won the right to host the extravaganza thanks to last year’s victory by Israeli singer Netta Barzilai, who opened the show on Saturday night at a Tel Aviv concert hall.
At a beach across town, crowds gathered to party at a Eurovision Village set up for the event.
The limelight may yet be stolen by the “queen of pop” Madonna, who will perform later at the Grand Final, expected to keep millions of fans glued to their TV screens for three and a half hours.
Madonna will perform her 1989 hit “Like a Prayer”, accompanied by a 35-strong choir, and the world premiere of the song “Future” from her forthcoming album, organisers said.
The 60-year-old pop diva has said she was determined to perform at the finals but her participation brought protests from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
BDS has for years been pushing for investors and artists to shun Israel over its decades-long occupation of Palestinian territories, and led calls for a boycott of this year’s Eurovision.
In a statement carried by US media earlier this week, Madonna said: “I’ll never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be.”
– ‘Historic day’ –
The largely European competition, which gifted the Swedish supergroup ABBA to the world, dates back to the 1950s.
Widening over the years to include channels subscribing to the European Broadcasting Union, and now spreading as far as Australia, the show lures in millions every year.
Favourite Duncan Laurence hopes to end a 44-year drought for the Netherlands in the long-running spectacle, when he sits at the piano to sing his power ballad “Arcade”.
He came out as bisexual in 2016 and has called for tolerance and understanding, saying his love of music provided a refuge during a difficult upbringing as a “mini-Harry Potter lookalike”.
“I hope that today will be a historic day,” he told Dutch journalists in Tel Aviv.
Independent fan website Eurovision World was giving Laurence a 45 percent chance of winning.
Despite only coming into the competition in the last few years, Australia is ranked as the second strongest contender, with a 13 percent chance of winning according to Eurovision World.
Dressed in an extravagant white dress, Kate Miller-Heidke’s version of “Zero Gravity” appears likely to propel her to stardom far beyond her country’s own borders.
Israel this year is being represented by Kobi Marimi and his ballad “Home.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Marimi by telephone ahead of the show and told him “millions are now watching you. Know that an entire people is supporting you,” a statement from the premier’s office said.
Israel’s hosting duties have been embraced by the country, which has received intensive coverage and attention in recent days.
Barzilai’s victory in Portugal last year led to ecstatic scenes in Tel Aviv, with crowds breaking out in song in the city’s Rabin Square and many jumping in the fountain there.
– Rival Palestinian contest –
Palestinians planned a simultaneous alternative event dubbed “Globalvision”.
Parties were to take place in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Haifa in northern Israel — home to a significant Arab population — and London and Dublin.
Anti-occupation NGO Breaking the Silence erected a billboard in Israel with the slogan “Dare to Dream of Freedom,” playing on the 2019 contest’s slogan “Dare to Dream”.
Iceland’s entry in the finals could lead to controversy.
The band Hatari, who dress in so-called BDSM outfits — bondage clothing including leather and whips — have been critical of Israel.
They have previously challenged Netanyahu to a Glima, a Nordic folk wrestling match, and could still seek to highlight the Palestinians’ plight during the extravaganza.