LISBON — When Portuguese jazz singer Salvador Sobral won last year’s Eurovision Song Contest with a mellow, mellifluous ballad, he hoped it would steer the competition away from its usual reliance on over-the-top spectacle. “Music is not fireworks; music is feeling,” he said in his acceptance speech.
It has not quite worked out that way.
This year’s 63rd edition of the annual contest, being held in Lisbon (the finals take place Saturday), has instead become the most dramatic and stunt-filled ever — in part thanks to efforts by the show’s producers to listen to Sobral and tone things down.
Portuguese broadcaster RTP had stripped the Eurovision stage of the walls of LED screens that have become ubiquitous backdrops in recent years. Executive producer João Nuno Nogueira said he hoped to make the atmosphere “as simple and elegant as Salvador’s performance in Kiev.”
Without the high-definition displays that had become an easy crutch, performers responded by getting even more creative to make sure they keep the audience’s attention — and their votes. “We have lots of props, more than ever before,” show producer Christer Bjorkman said.
Some acts use on-screen graphics that do not appear on the physical stage: Norway’s Alexander Rybak plays air guitar, air violin, air piano and air drums while those instruments are rendered before him; Lithuania’s Ieva Zasimauskaite has a hologram of an elderly couple flash beside her during her song, “When We’re Old.”
Others have created elaborate sets and stunts. Finnish singer Saara Aalto starts her performance strapped to a large wheel that spins her upside-down and then right-side-up before lowering her onto a short staircase. She then climbs a taller staircase, only to dramatically finish by trust-falling off a platform into her backup dancers’ arms.
Ukrainian singer Melovin begins his vampire-themed performance in a coffin-like box that opens and lifts him up like a corpse. He then descends a staircase, only to reascend it to play the coffin as a piano while the stairs catch fire.
“The Ukrainian delegation sent out a press release stressing the safety precautions they took, because their artist is in danger of being hurt,” said William Lee Adams, the founder and editor of Eurovision news site Wiwibloggs. “He’s lying inside of a coffin on top of a rickety two-tier piano above literal flames. That’s a lot. That’s bananas.”
Others went more direct, like Hungarian heavy-metal band AWS, which got advice from Hungary’s broadcaster on how to ramp up its act for Eurovision. “They just said that we have to do more flames and more fireworks,” explained Ors Siklosi, AWS’ singer. “And so now we have more flames and more fireworks.
“In some instances we have Cirque du Soleil-level artistry,” Adams noted. “In other instances it’s just a circus.”
Other acts have embraced the minimalist Sobral aesthetic — after all, it did win last year. French duo Madame Monsieur, one of the favorites to win, sings a touching number about a baby born aboard a boat rescuing refugees from the Mediterranean. The duo wears all black to reduce their own presence from the stage.
“The outfits we have were made for us to disappear behind the song,” said Emilie Satt, the band’s lead singer. “The point was: Don’t focus on us; focus on the song.”
The overall betting favorite to win the contest, Eleni Foureira from Cyprus, is also prop-free. She performs her song “Fuego” with feverish choreography and flicks of her voluminous hair as lights and pyrotechnics blaze.
“You don’t have to have an elaborate staging to make an impression; the best prop of 2018 is the Cypriot singer’s body,” Adams said. “She pops, she locks, she reflects light, she gives off energy. When she whips her hair, you feel it. Her mane shoots from stage, through the screen, and into your heart.”