Eurovision 2021: song contest makes Covid-lite return in the Netherlands

Two semi-finals are taking place at the Rotterdam Ahoy Arena, before the grand final on Saturday

Barbara Pravi from France with the song 'Voila' performs during the second Eurovision rehearsal. EPA  
Barbara Pravi from France with the song 'Voila' performs during the second Eurovision rehearsal. EPA  

The kitschy glamour of Eurovision is back, with the Dutch hosting a scaled-down, coronavirus-safe version this week after the song contest was cancelled in 2020.

Around 3,500 Covid-tested fans will be allowed to attend the final on Saturday in Rotterdam as the return of the pageant injects some glitz into Europe's cautious reopening.

We don't take lightly the responsibility of hosting the Eurovision Song Contest at this challenging time

Martin Oesterdahl, Eurovision executive supervisor

French singer Barbara Pravi, dubbed a modern-day Edith Piaf, is the bookmakers' favourite to end her country's 44-year Eurovision drought, followed by Italy and Malta.

Performers will be in a special "bubble" under strict rules imposed by the Dutch government to allow the contest at the port city's Ahoy Arena to go ahead.

"We don't take lightly the responsibility of hosting the Eurovision Song Contest at this challenging time," said Eurovision executive supervisor Martin Osterdahl.

Known for its flamboyant costumes and cheesy songs, Eurovision is watched by more than 180 million people in more than four dozen countries as far afield as Australia.

But the televisual pageant was scrapped for the first time in its six-decade history last year as the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping the globe.

On Saturday, organisers announced that one of the members of the Polish delegation had tested positive for Covid-19 and that the whole delegation, including singer Rafal Brzozowski, has gone into quarantine.

This means they will not be able to perform live at Thursday's second semifinal when a recording of their last rehearsal will be shown.

epa09201355 James Newman from the United Kingdom with the song 'Embers' performs during the second rehearsal of the six pre-qualified countries of the 65th annual Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) at the Rotterdam Ahoy arena, in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 15 May 2021. The six pre-qualified countries are Italy, Germany, Netherlands, France, United Kingdom and Spain. Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, only a limited number of visitors is allowed at the 65th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC2021) that is taking place in an adapted form at the Rotterdam Ahoy and consist of two semi-finals, on 18 and 20 May 2021, and a grand final on 22 May 2021. EPA/SANDER KONING / POOL
James Newman from the United Kingdom with the song 'Embers' performs during the second Eurovision rehearsal. EPA

'Scaled down considerably'

The cancellation was a bitter disappointment for the Netherlands, which won the right to host the contest after Dutch crooner Duncan Laurence won in Israel in 2019.

At the peak of the pandemic, the Rotterdam venue was even repurposed to host 88 beds for coronavirus patients.

But now it will host live audiences not only for the final but also for two semi-finals on Tuesday and Thursday.

Under the Dutch government's Fieldlab programme of trial events, each show will allow an audience of 3,500 people, around 20 per cent of the Ahoy Arena's capacity.

For viewers used to a sea of flags and glammed-up artists hugging and celebrating, the Eurovision Song Contest 2021 will however be different.

Artists from most of the 39 countries involved are travelling to the Netherlands, but some, such as Australia, will take part via pre-recorded video.

National delegations have to follow strict protocol, remaining separated from the audience and testing every 48 hours.

"The numbers have been scaled down considerably. Delegations are much smaller," executive producer Sietse Bakker said.

Organisers "politely reminded" participants of the rules last week after photos and videos showed artists embracing journalists, while Ukraine's entrant tested negative after a scare.

They also said they expected "very few" fans would travel from abroad owing to Dutch travel restrictions including a 10-day quarantine and PCR test requirement.

"We want to keep the coronavirus out as much as possible," Bakker said.

Despite recently easing some restrictions, the Dutch government is still struggling with a slow vaccine rollout, in a country of 17 million people where 17,000 people have died and 1.57 million been infected.

Controversial entries from across Europe

But Eurovision's unique mix of kitsch and simmering national tensions remains much the same despite the pandemic.

France's Barbara Pravi carries her country's hopes with her moody number Voila.

"It's not pressure I feel, it's impatience and joy," said Pravi.

France has been waiting for a Eurovision champion since 1977 when Marie Myriam won the competition.

Malta's singer Destiny Chukunyere, 18, singing Je Me Casse (French for "I'm outta here"), has attracted attention – as well as body-shaming trolls – for her bold wardrobe choices, including a bubblegum-pink fringed number.

"This is a dream come true and a testament that I am on the right track and that hard work pays off," said the singer, who won the second edition of X Factor Malta, when the deal was announced.

Weird and wonderful Eurovision stories have emerged as with any other year.

Russia's entry, Russian Woman performed by Manizha, has upset conservatives at home with its anti-sexism lyrics.

Cyprus meanwhile has stood by its controversial entry after the Orthodox Church accused it of advocating "devil worship".

And while the coronavirus pandemic has made for a very different Eurovision this year, it is not the first time the event has collided with reality.

The 2017 edition held in conflict-hit Ukraine was marked by tensions with Russia while the last show in Israel in 2019 sparked protests by pro-Palestinian activists and artists.

Updated: May 16, 2021 10:34 AM

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