Lisbon (AFP) – Cyprus and Israel were frontrunners as the final of the Eurovision Song Contest, the annual song and dance fest known for its outrageous costumes and glitz, kicked off in Lisbon on Saturday night.
The show, watched by millions around the world, got under way at the riverside Altice Arena with performances by Portuguese fado stars Ana Moura and Mariza, a willowy singer with bleached blonde hair.
Cyprus’ Eleni Foureira, who is a huge star in Greece, is tipped by bookmakers as the favourite to win with her fiery number “Fuego” that features a heavily choreographed routine.
Vying for first place is Israel’s Netta Barzilai’s “Toy”, whose lyrics “I am not your toy” sum up the concerns of many women who have adopted the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.
The 25-year-old accompanies the up-tempo song with trills, clucking sounds and chicken-like dance moves.
Highlights will include Denmark’s red-bearded Rasmussen, whose song is based on a legend about a Viking who refused to fight, and a special dress worn by Estonian soprano Elina Nechayeva which flows down from her waist, beyond her feet and out across the stage.
The dress comes to life with lighting displays and laser effects while she sings.
– ‘Harmless fun’ –
Eurovision was first held in 1956 with the aim of uniting Europe after World War II.
Today it has a combined global audience of around 200 million people — more than the Super Bowl in the United States — and has served as a global launching pad for the likes of ABBA and Celine Dion.
This year’s final won’t be seen in China though.
The European Broadcast Union has barred a Chinese video service, Mango TV, from airing the event after it edited out a romantic dance sequence by two men from Ireland’s entry in the first semi-final on Tuesday, and blurred out rainbow flags in the audience.
Ireland made it to Saturday’s final.
Despite an ever-increasing number of TV music contests such as Pop Idol, fans say the show — the longest-running international TV competition according to Guinness World Records — is in a category of its own.
“It’s just harmless fun, it is just a really good atmosphere,” said Lee Torrance, a 43-year-old from Worcestershire in the UK who wore a vest and bowtie with the Union Jack pattern to the final.
– Portugal debut –
Portugal is hosting the event for the first time after its entry, jazzy solo ballad “Amar pelos dois” (“Love for two”) by Salvador Sobral, won the contest last year in Ukraine.
Cash-strapped public broadcaster RTP has vowed to stage a more “theatrical” contest that makes less use of flashy electronic visual effects, following in the footsteps of Sobral who said after his win that “music is not fireworks, music is feeling”.
This year’s contest will cost around 20 million euros ($24 million) to stage, the lowest amount since 2008 when it started to have two semi-finals.
Sobral will perform his winning song from last year at the final with Brazilian music icon Caetano Veloso.
It will be the first time that he hits the stage since he underwent a heart transplant in December.
Some Eurovision fans have taken to Twitter to call for Sobral to be jeered after he called Israel’s entry this year “a horrible song” in an interview published Wednesday Portuguese daily Publico.
He also appeared to disparage the festival by saying that “fortunately” this year he did not have to listen to any of the contest’s songs.
After two semi-finals held this week, 20 countries moved to Saturday’s final while Britain, Italy, Spain, France and Germany automatically reached this stage as they are the biggest contributors to the European Broadcasting Union.
Host Portugal also automatically qualified.
Viewers and professional juries in all 43 participating countries will pick the winner.