Second Eurovision semifinal under way in Tel Aviv
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Second Eurovision semifinal under way in Tel Aviv

Wildly popular international music contest puts Israel, and its controversies, in the spotlight; Madonna confirms performance for Saturday’s final

Roko of Croatia during a rehearsal ahead of the second semifinal of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, May 15, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Roko of Croatia during a rehearsal ahead of the second semifinal of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, May 15, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The second semifinal in the Eurovision Song Contest was being held in Tel Aviv on Thursday night, with participants from 18 nations vying for the right to compete in Saturday’s final and hoping to bring the contest to their home countries next year.

Israel earned the right to host after Israeli singer Netta Barzilai carried off last year’s prize with her spunky pop anthem “Toy.” Israeli contestant Kobi Marimi will be attempting to follow in Barzilai’s footsteps on Saturday night, but he faces an uphill battle, with oddsmakers currently predicting he will come in 25th place.

Perhaps anticipating controversy, organizers decided to hold the contest in Tel Aviv — Israel’s freewheeling cultural capital known for its beaches and gay-friendly lifestyle — instead of in the contested, conservative capital of Jerusalem.

Coming just days after the latest skirmish between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, security is high at the contest at Expo Tel Aviv.

Neil Farren, a Eurovision commentator live-blogging contest preparations in Tel Aviv, said the visibly heightened security and briefings on air raid sirens and bomb shelters likely rattled some contenders, who have so far remained tight-lipped about the political situation.

But at least Madonna is coming.

The Queen of Pop landed in Israel on Tuesday evening after she confirmed she had rejected calls for her to boycott Eurovision, saying she will “never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda.”

On Thursday, Madonna signed a contract to perform on Saturday, ending uncertainty after repeated delays.

The Israeli hosts of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, Bar Rephaeli, Erez Tal, and Lucy Ayoub, on stage during a rehearsal ahead of the contest in Tel Aviv on May 13, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Now it’s official,” Kan, which is producing the event with the European Broadcasting Union, wrote on its website.

“After some tense days, a contract between Madonna and the Eurovision producers was signed today,” it said.

The pop icon brings with her an entourage of 135 people, including the rapper KoVu, 40 backing singers, 25 dancers and a team of technicians, according to reports citing the Israeli-Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams, said to be footing a large part of the bill for her performance.

The Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel had urged artists to skip Eurovision in Tel Aviv. In a statement, it accused Madonna of “artwashing” and urged her to cancel.

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