After almost a year of preparation, the highly touted Eurovision song contest kicked off in Tel Aviv with a high-powered display of glitz, pyrotechnics and campy fun as countries competed for a spot in Saturday’s final.
Donning outlandish outfits and belting out cheesy pop anthems and heartfelt love songs, 17 countries performed at the first semifinal in Tel Aviv with hopes of making it to the next round.
The show featured a dizzying array of acts, from the grinding metal rock of Iceland’s steampunk band to the catchy pop of the scantily clad Cypriot singer.
Ten countries made it through to the final — Greece, Belarus, Serbia, Cyprus, Estonia, Czech Republic, Australia, Iceland, San Marino and Slovenia — on the basis of votes from viewers and juries in all 41 of the countries participating in the contest.
Australia’s Kate Miller-Heidke, who performed her power ballad “Zero Gravity” dressed as an ice princess that would not have looked out of place in Disney’s Frozen, is considered one of a handful of performers with a solid shot at winning, which would be a first for the decidedly non-European country.
She and her backup dancers swayed from side to side on the stage on stilts, or what local commentators described as “skewers.”
Slovenian duo Zala Kralj and Gasper Santl didn’t do much onstage but sing and stare into one another’s eyes, but they also made it to the next round.
The Netherlands, Sweden, Russia and France are also considered top contenders, with Dutchman Duncan Laurence the favorite among bookies’ to take home the prize. France, Israel and other European powers get an automatic bid to the second round, while The Netherlands, Sweden, Russia will compete for spots on Thursday’s second semi-final.
Greece’s upbeat “Better Love” performed by Katerine Duska is also considered a possible frontrunner.
Not making the cut on Tuesday night was Finland’s Darude, a DJ and producer known for his 1999 dance track “Sandstorm.” Artists from Montenegro, Poland, Hungary, Belgium, Georgia and Portugal were also sent packing.
The approximately two-hour show kicked off at 10 p.m. at the Tel Aviv Expo convention center, after months of preparations to host the contest, considered the world’s largest music competition.
Israel won the right to host when Netta Barzilai won last year’s contest in Portugal with her poultry-themed women’s empowerment ditty “Toy.”
Barzilai reprised her hit and 1998 winner Dana International performed Bruno Mars’s “Just The Way You Are,” to a less than sold-out crowd.
Some 2,000 tickets to the semifinal were left unpurchased, according to Israel’s Channel 12 news.
The contest has been plagued by complaints of high prices for both tickets and accommodations in Tel Aviv. Organizers have also raised concerns about a concerted pro-Palestinian boycott campaign and tensions with Gaza that burst into two days of intense fighting last week.
Still, thousands of fans packed the Tel Aviv hall, waving flags and cheering patriotically. The enthusiastic atmosphere appeared free of recent politics that many in Israel feared would spoil the festivities.
Iceland’s representative, Hatari, had sparked controversy in Israel by initially vowing to use the Eurovision spotlight to expose the “face of the occupation.” But at a press conference after the semifinal, Hatari offered a purely positive message. “We need to unite and remember to love,” he said, in the wake of “hate that’s on the rise in Europe.”
Some 200 million viewers worldwide tuned into the spectacle.
Fears of attempts to disrupt the contest by pro-Palestinian activists did not materialize at the host venue, but some viewers at home watching via the Kan public broadcaster’s website had their feeds replaced by a video threatening to shoot rockets close to the contest, according to Hebrew media reports.
Kan said in a statement that the message only reached a small number of viewers and the issue was being investigated.
The second semi-final will be held Thursday night before the grand finale on Saturday.
Crooner Kobi Marimi, who is representing Israel with the operatic elegy “Home,” will not perform until the final on Saturday, though oddsmakers put him at the bottom of the pack.
Also expected to perform Saturday is pop superstar Madonna, who on Tuesday rebuffed calls from BDS activists for her to cancel her gig.
“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,” the singer said, in a statement carried by US media.
A total of 26 countries will compete on Saturday night: the 20 that make it through the semi-finals, plus Israel, France, the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.