LISBON, Portugal - Lights, music, action! The annual celebration of country and song known as the Eurovision Song Contest got underway in Portugal's capital Saturday night with a paean to the country's traditional fado music.
Accompanied by a Portuguese 12-string guitar and drums, fado singers Ana Moura and Mariza — two of the genre's biggest stars — opened the contest's Grand Final at Altice Arena on Saturday night.
The final of the 63rd Eurovision Song Contest will crown one of 26 entries with dreams of following in the footsteps of past winners such as Swedish pop group ABBA and Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias.
More than 10,000 people are in the audience, and thousands more are watching the show at a downtown fan zone. An expected 200 million people were expected to tune in across the world.
The event started out as a competition between European countries, but its huge popularity has led to the inclusion of Israel and Australia as contestants.
The country which furnishes the winner organizes the following year's competition. Portugal won last year with Salvador Sobral's subdued ballad "Amar pelos Dois."
Beatbombers, a Portuguese DJ duo, mixed a classic fado song with a techno beat while the contestants representing 26 countries paraded across the stage with their national flags.
A lot of thought went into the lineup for the Eurovision Song Contest's Grand Final.
The event's producer, Christer Bjorkman, assesses each of the annual event's 26 performers, figuring out how to create the best show. He juggles ballads with heavy rock, and balances solo acts with bands, to get the tempo right.
"You want to start with good energy. You want to get the party going," Bjorkman said.
Ukrainian entry MELOVIN was the first contestant up on Saturday night with his song "Under The Ladder." His performance featured a flaming staircase leading up to a piano, touches he said were inspired by the song's lyrics: "Nothing but your will sets you on fire, and fire lasts forever."
Ukraine has won the competition twice. After MELOVIN, it was Spain's turn.
One headache for organizers is the turnover time between acts of just 40 seconds. That's not much time to get the props off stage, though the commercial breaks offer more breathing space for the crew.
Italy, the 26th act, was set to close out the night before voting begins.
The annual Euro-pop fest has long been the glittery home of outlandish costumes, high-voltage stage effects, forgettable tunes and kitschy acts like last year's dancing gorilla.
But Portugal is putting on a show with stylish, elegant performances by a strong field of competitors. And it's doing that with a $23.8 million budget that officials say is the most restrained since 2008.
That means the contest is heading to what many predict will be an exceptional year.
"Music isn't fireworks, it's feeling," Sobral said to explain his 2017 triumph.
Six countries automatically qualify for the Grand Final: the "Big Five" of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U. K., as well as the host country. Two semifinals have cut the overall field from 43 to the 26 who will compete on Saturday night.
The bookmakers' favourites this year are: Israel's Netta Barzilai, with her playful song "Toy"; Cypriot singer Eleni Foureira, with her fiery performance of "Fuego"; and France's Madame Monsieur with the politically charged "Mercy," about migrants who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean on unsafe boats hoping for a better life in Europe.
This year saw the return to competition of Russia, a traditional favourite, after missing last year's event amid a diplomatic spat with host Ukraine. But it was a short return: Russia's contestant Julia Samoylova went out in the semifinals, while Ukraine singer Melovin advanced to the Grand Final.
The hugely popular international event is organized by the European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of public service broadcasters.