Israel's third Eurovision: 20 years in the making

Two decades after Israel last hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, Tel Aviv is ready to hold the biggest cultural event in its history.

May 14, 2019 17:56
Eurovision rehearsal May 13, 2019

Eurovision rehearsal May 13, 2019. (photo credit: DOTAN ARAD)

A year after Netta Barzilai took home the top prize at the 2018 Eurovision in Lisbon, Portugal, 41 singers from around the globe will take the stage at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds for the Eurovision Song Contest. And for the past year, Israel has been gearing up for the once-in-a-generation opportunity to put on an incredible show and showcase the country to Eurovision fans around the globe.

“This will be the best Eurovision in history,” said KAN CEO Eldad Koblenz, at a press conference in Tel Aviv in April. “I guarantee it. We at KAN don’t believe in lowering our expectations so that afterward we can say we succeeded,” he added. “After all, it’s better to have a spectacular failure than dreams left behind in a drawer.”

For more than six months, KAN and the Tel Aviv Municipality have been working hand in hand to transform the city and the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds venue into the ultimate Eurovision dream. From the smallest detail, such as flowers planted around the city, to the most critical – the stage where all the action will take place – nothing has been forgotten.

Zivit Davidovich, the executive producer of the 2019 Eurovision, said last month that everyone on the Israeli team has been working nonstop to pull off a successful, memorable show.

“As people across the globe look to Israel as the 2019 Eurovision hosts, we want to present Israel in the best way we can,” she said. “The Israeli team working on the Eurovision Song Contest is one of the most experienced, both in terms of production and creativity. The Israeli Eurovision team [members] are working on the project with the deep aspiration and mission to represent Israel and to produce the best Eurovision Song Contest in the 64 years of the competition’s existence.”

THE JOURNEY all began a year ago in Lisbon, when Barzilai and her song, “Toy,” beat out 42 other countries to take home the coveted glass microphone.

After an emotional Barzilai thanked her supporters for voting for her, she proclaimed to the millions watching around the world: “I love my country – next time in Jerusalem!”

Turns out, her words were not prophetic, and this year, the competition – unlike those in 1979 and 1999 – will be held in Tel Aviv. And come May 14, the first semifinal will begin broadcasting live from the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds.

For thousands of Eurovision fans in the country, and millions watching around the world, it’s the pinnacle of a year of anticipation.
In Israel, it’s been a year of groundwork, preparation, construction, planning and a fair amount of bumps along the way.

Within hours of Barzilai’s victory – and her proclamation about Jerusalem – a debate was already raging in Israel over the ideal location for the 2019 competition. Many felt that Jerusalem, the capital and home to Israel’s past two Eurovision contests, was the only valid option. But others believed Tel Aviv, with its beautiful beaches, vibrant nightlife and LGBT-friendly entertainment scene, was the ideal location.

Of course, the decision wasn’t up to Eurovision fans, or even up to the Israeli government. After a bidding process, the European Broadcasting Union was the one that ultimately selected Tel Aviv for this year’s contest. In fact, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv weren’t the only options – the resort city of Eilat also submitted a bid, despite not even having an arena. The city of Haifa and the regional council representing Masada also expressed interest in hosting the contest, but neither ultimately followed through with a bid.

While some criticized the EBU decision as a political one, with Jerusalem often viewed as a contested city, all signs indicate that wasn’t the deciding factor. It’s more likely that Eurovision officials were concerned that the capital’s religious nature would interfere with the nonstop activity required for the contest. Before the decision was made, the Jerusalem Municipality would not commit to allowing full-blown activity on Shabbat – from Friday evening to Saturday evening – a time when the Eurovision is typically preparing full force for the grand finale on Saturday night, including two full dress rehearsals.

Jon Ola Sand, the executive supervisor of the Eurovision, said in an interview last year, several weeks before the host city was announced, that the issue of Saturday work was nonnegotiable.

“To do the Eurovision song contest, you have to be able to work 24/7 for all the weeks – not only the production week and the rehearsal week, but the weeks before, when you build up the set design, when you adjust the venue,” he told KAN. “I regret to say there’s no way the Eurovision Song Contest can be hosted anywhere without having the possibility to work also through Saturdays. It’s absolutely impossible, and that’s paramount for us.”

IN SEPTEMBER, Tel Aviv got the go-ahead, when the EBU announced that the contest will be held at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds conference center in the north of the city.

For close to two months leading up to the competition, dozens of people – from Israel and abroad – have been working around the clock to turn the conference center’s Pavilion 2 into a Eurovision-worthy arena.

The stage, designed by Florian Wieder, is set in front of an enormous, 700-meter LED screen that can split into 12 individual screens, which all rotate 360 degrees, and 130 LED triangles that can be raised and lowered are suspended from above.

The pavilion will include 7,280 seats for the public and 46 commentator booths. The number of seats available for spectators is relatively low for the Eurovision. Last year in Lisbon, the show was hosted at the Altice Arena, which seats 20,000 people. In 2017, in Kiev, the arena held around 11,000, and in 2016 in Stockholm it seated approximately 15,000. The EBU itself sets out a requirement of 10,000 spots for an eligible venue, but ultimately decided to compromise on that point.

After the announcement, devoted fans were concerned about scoring one of the limited seats to the shows. KAN even added a special “green room” section, with NIS 2,000 tickets to sit in the room with the delegations and watch everything via screen, in an effort to boost available spots. And while tickets to the grand finale sold out quickly, thousands of tickets to the live semifinals, the dress rehearsals and the green room were still available with two weeks to go until the competition. Slow sales were attributed to unusually high prices set by KAN, which it said were needed to recoup the high costs it laid out for the show, without assistance from the government.

THOUGH THE past six months have been marred by squabbles between KAN and the government over budgeting, the public broadcaster has gone full speed ahead on putting together a beautiful, impressive broadcast.

In January, KAN announced that this year’s competition would have four hosts: supermodel Bar Refaeli and TV hosts Erez Tal, Assi Azar and Lucy Ayoub. The foursome have been working hard to get ready for the contest, and are sure to put on a memorable show for the millions of fans watching from all corners of the world.

While some bristled at the selection of Refaeli, not long after she was charged with tax evasion, her legal troubles have been largely placed in the background, and the Tax Authority appears to be willing to wait until after the Eurovision to proceed with its criminal case.

While the main event, of course, is the 41 competing countries, KAN has ensured that both the semifinals and the grand finale will be star-studded and full of a bevy of home-grown Israeli talent. Gal Gadot, arguably the most famous Israeli in the world, will be filming a video clip to be shown during the final. Lior Suchard, the world-renowned mentalist, will perform a musical magic act, and Barzilai will both kick off the first semifinal and appear at the grand finale. Dana International, the 1998 winner, will be performing, as will bands The Idan Raichel Project and the Shalva Band and video artist Kutiman.

But KAN has brought plenty of international flair to the show as well, most notably pop superstar Madonna. Thanks to billionaire philanthropist Sylvan Adams, who footed the $1.3 million bill, Madonna will make a live appearance at the May 18 finale. KAN has also arranged for some of the most beloved Eurovision acts, including Austria’s Conchita Wurst, Cyprus’s Eleni Foureira, Sweden’s Mans Zelmerlow, Ukraine’s Verka Serduchka and Israel’s Gali Atari to perform a musical swapping number.

“After 20 years we are excited to host the world’s largest music competition, in which 41 unique songs from different countries around the world will take center stage,” Yuval Cohen, the deputy executive producer of the show, said last month. “A great deal of thought was invested in developing the lineup of the performances, with the aim of relating to the 200 million viewers watching across the globe and in the same breath bringing an Israeli experience to the screen.”

And KAN has also invested time, money and energy in producing a dazzling Eurovision staple: the postcards. The 40-second clips, filmed at a wide range of spots across Israel, introduce each contestant at both the semifinals and the finals. Israel set a theme this year of dancing across the country, and worked with each participant and a team of professional dancers to create unforgettable clips. After a sneak peek last month, popular Eurovision blog wiwibloggs called the postcards “original, fresh and downright stunning.”

THIS YEAR’S Eurovision Song Contest is about so much more than just the three live shows. The city of Tel Aviv has kicked into high gear to host an entire week of Eurovision events. The municipality expects about 10,000 tourists to touch down in Israel for the week, and it is ready to show them – as well as local Eurovision fans – the time of their lives. To that end, it has been putting in hard work for almost six months to get the city in shape.

“Hundreds of people have already begun working,” said Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, at the key handover ceremony in January. “And they all have one goal: to make sure that the Eurovision this year will be the best show on earth in the coolest city in the world.”

Huldai said the Eurovision slogan, “Dare to Dream,” is “a fantastic slogan for the city of Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is the start-up city in the Start-Up Nation. The dreamers of Tel Aviv-Jaffa are waiting to host you in May.”

And at a press conference in Tel Aviv in April, the city’s mayor was even more optimistic.

“For the past several months, we have worked around the clock so that everything will come out perfectly,” said Huldai in mid-April. “Both the city and KAN have the best Eurovision of all time in our wonderful city. It might sound ambitious, but ambition is part of our DNA in this incredible city.”

And true to its word, the city has pulled out all the stops for a week of festivities.

The Eurovision Village – which the Tel Aviv Municipality says will be the largest in history – will be stationed in Charles Clore Park from May 12 to 18. It will include live performances of Israeli artists, a bar overlooking the ocean, giant screens playing the three live shows and a food truck festival right nearby. The Eurovision Village is open to the public for free, while the EuroClub, hosted at Hangar 11 at Tel Aviv Port, is the designated party spot for the delegations, press and accredited fans and those who purchase a bracelet. EuroClub attendees will be treated to three special parties on May 11, 12 and 18, as well as live shows all week long from past Eurovision acts from both Israel and abroad.

On May 12, the kickoff event for the Eurovision – the Orange Carpet – will be held at Culture Square in the center of the city, outside Habima Theater. And all week long Tel Aviv has lifted noise and business restrictions to allow local and international Eurovision fans to party even later.

And the city has worked to make everything friendlier for the influx of tourists, including posting English signs and maps at bus and train stations, working with cab companies to add official rate stickers, and setting NIS 10 price limits on certain food and drinks around the city. The municipality has also set up free transportation to the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds on Friday evening and Saturday, when the regular public transport does not run, established 15 pop-up information booths around the city and trained hundreds of volunteers to assist travelers with questions.

“Eurovision is an opportunity for incredible global exposure,” said Huldai. “Tel Aviv will welcome thousands of tourists; will host 1,500 journalists and will be seen by tens of millions of viewers. Netta, in her recent song, talked about two moods: Bassa and sababa, a bad mood and a good mood. Unlike the song, Tel Aviv has only one mood. We promise, that whoever comes to Tel Aviv in May will experience one thing: sababa, sababa and more sababa.”

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