Eurovision, High Camp, And Opera

It’s that time of year again: The Eurovision Song Contest is just around the corner, coming to grace (or haunt) television screens across Europe and beyond on May 11. What began as an experiment in transnational broadcasting in 1956 has since become a global cultural phenomenon in which camp and geopolitics intertwine. Eurovision, now in its 68th edition, has long been a mediator for European cultural and political values. After the dissolution of both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Eurovision became a platform on which the slew of newly independent nations could present themselves as sociopolitically progressive and economically modernizing—meaning worthy of support from the West and, in most cases, membership into the newly established European Union.

Opera, too, is no stranger to intersections of camp and politics, and some of Eurovision’s campest entries have been sung by opera singers. In this playlist, I explore eight operatic Eurovision entries to show that the seemingly distant genres are more compatible than you might think.

Alenka Gotar: “Cvet z Juga” (Slovenia, 2007)

Slovenian soprano Alenka Gotar was chosen to represent Slovenia in the 2007 Contest with her song “Cvet z Juga” (“Flower of the South”). Written and composed by Slovenian songwriter Andrej Babić, Gotar’s aria evokes operatic tropes of the feminine and geographical exotic. Gotar sings of a love that cannot be, while the title of the song suggests the pain of physical distance from the beloved. In the live performance, Gotar stood center stage while surrounded by five backing singers. In the first post-chorus, the camera followed Gotar as she illuminated her face with a light attached to the palm of her hand. The palm light returned in the final 30 seconds of the song—which, in true Eurovision fashion, is modulated up a step—leading us to a majestic Picardy third conclusion. Gotar brought Slovenia to 15th place out of 24 in the Grand Final.

Malena Ernman: “La Voix” (Sweden, 2009) 

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Mezzo-soprano, environmental activist, and mother of Greta Thunberg Malena Ernman represented Sweden at the 2009 Contest in Moscow with her operatic Europop banger “La Voix.” Written by Ernman and Swedish songwriter Fredrik Kempe, “La Voix” is a confession of love: Ernman begins the first verse by asking and then confessing, “Can you keep a secret? I’m in love with you.” Singing the verses in her lower register, she transitions into her higher range for the chorus, sung entirely in French: “I love you, my love, when I hear the voice; I love you, my life, it’s never without you.” Sweden’s sending a song partially in French is just one example of the many cultural and linguistic exchanges that occur through Eurovision.

On the stage in Moscow, Ernman stunned in a white dress surrounded by five backing singer-dancers in black. Ernman mostly stood in place, eyeing the camera with Cecilia Bartoli-esque facial expressions as the dancers moved around her. When the chorus hit, the whole stage turned white, evoking an angelic sense of purity fit for a confession of true love. In the final chorus, modulated up a step, Ernman demonstrated her control of her upper range while the dancers, donning bedazzled masks, swayed around her.

Though an iconic performance, Ernman placed 21st out of 25, one of Sweden’s worst results to date. “La Voix” grew a legacy outside of Eurovision when Russian pop star Philip Kirkorov and soprano Anna Netrebko released a Russian-language cover of the song in 2010.


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Amaury Vassili: “Sognu” (France, 2011)

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French tenor Amaury Vassili was selected by the broadcaster France 3 to represent his country in the 2011 Contest in Düsseldorf. “Our choice was driven by the desire to promote a young talented artist representing the best of the French music and its diversity,” Pierre Sled, program supervisor at France 3, said of the decision. “That’s why we quickly agreed an opera singer was the most elegant option.” The song’s composers chose to write the lyrics in Corsican because of the language’s similarity to Italian which, they said, “will perfectly suit an opera song.”

“Sognu” (“I Dream”) is a dramatic aria in which Vassili expresses his devotion to his lover: He dreams of their lips, voice, and presence throughout the song, concluding with the lyric “if you die, I also die.” On the night of the Grand Final, Vassili stood alone on stage in front of a large screen depicting dawn and dusk among clouds, with the camera angles positioned so that viewers could see fans waving French flags before him. But the performance felt more “Les Misérables” than “La Bohème,” and while France was a front-runner in the betting odds, Vassili placed 15th out of 25.

Cezar: “It’s My Life” (Romania, 2013)

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Fans were shocked when the Romanian public selected countertenor Florin Cezar Ouatu to represent them in the 2013 Contest in Malmö, which also hosts this year’s Contest. His song “It’s My Life” is about the thrill of being in love. He wore a sequin outfit reminiscent of Count Dracula on stage, accompanied by three half-nude interpretive dancers. While some joke that Eurovision is about ten years behind popular music trends, “It’s My Life” was right on target for 2013 with its dubstep bridge. (It was not the only entry with a dubstep bridge that year.)

After the bridge, Cezar sang a sequential phrase on the lyric “I’ll find my story and fight for my glory of love.” As he sang, he ascended from the stage floor while his black gown grew taller, leading to the modulated final chorus. Many fans criticized Cezar’s song and performance for being too over-the-top; some even called it “excruciating.” Still, the combination of the song’s lyrics, the countertenor’s voice, and the spectacular staging rendered this performance a genderbent or queered expression of desire.

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Il Volo: “Grande Amore” (Italy, 2015)

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Opera’s greatest success in Eurovision came when the popular trio Il Volo represented Italy in the 2015 Contest in Vienna. Il Volo was selected to represent Italy through the San Remo Festival, the annual song contest established in 1951 that was the basis and inspiration for Eurovision. (Italians take San Remo seriously—perhaps more so than Eurovision, depending on who you ask.) 

Il Volo’s dramatic ballad “Grande Amore” (“Great Love”) is about the power of love, broadly speaking. The trio closed the Grand Final with a simple yet captivating performance. Unlike the previous four entries, the performance did not include typical Eurovision gimmicks like half-step modulations or flashy costumes. The trio stood mostly still on stage, drawing attention to their voices. They sang in unison for most of the chorus, and individual lines while charmingly staring into the camera during the verses, all before a backdrop of Roman columns and sculptures. Italy placed 3rd out of 27, but had the results been up to the public alone (instead of a 50-50 split between the public and the juries), Italy would have won.

Jacques Houdek: “My Friend” (Croatia, 2017)

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Croatia gave the world a classical crossover moment when their broadcaster sent recording artist Jacques Houdek, also known “Mr. Voice,” to Eurovision with his song “My Friend.” (Think Andrea Boccelli and Celine Dion’s “The Prayer,” but with both parts sung by one singer.) In this motivational song about supporting your friends through hard times, Houdek sings lyrics in English with his head and falsetto registers, and lyrics in Italian with his chest register. On the Contest stage in Kyiv, Houdek was joined by a violinist and cellist who featured in a virtuosic instrumental bridge leading toward the modulated final chorus. The camera angles followed Houdek’s alter egos as he impressively navigated frequent registral changes, making it seem as though there were indeed twins on stage. While Croatia was largely ignored by fans in the months leading up to the Contest, Houdek wowed audiences enough to reach 13th place out of 26.

Elina Nechayeva, “La Forza” (Estonia, 2018)

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Italy’s success in 2015 secured a place for Italian-language operatic pop in the Eurovision oeuvre, as shown both by Croatia’s 2017 song and Estonia’s 2018 entry, “La Forza” by soprano Elina Nechayeva, sung entirely in Italian. The song became a Contest frontrunner shortly after its selection by the Estonian public.

Estonia’s decision to send a song in Italian may seem odd. But the song follows the trend set by preceding operatic Eurovision entries: that Italian is the most fitting language for an operatic sound. The song itself is dramatic, almost otherworldly, and distant in its instrumentation and glimmering melodic gestures. On the stage in Lisbon, Nechayeva stood on an elevated pedestal covered by a dress that covered a large diameter around her. Various graphics with moving images from outer space were projected onto her dress. The vocally captivating and visually appealing performance got Estonia to 8th place out of 26.

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Kate Miller-Heidke: “Zero Gravity” (Australia, 2019)

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Yes, Australia is in Eurovision. They were initially invited to participate in 2015 as a one-off guest in celebration of Eurovision’s 50th anniversary, but after scoring 5th place, the European Broadcasting Union initially allowed them to stay through 2023. The Australian broadcaster’s agreement with the EBU was extended through 2024, but the new expiration date is currently unknown. When the Australian public was finally granted the opportunity to vote for their representative in 2019, they chose soprano and singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke to perform her song “Zero Gravity” in Tel Aviv. Miller-Heidke wrote the song about her experience with post-natal depression after the birth of her son, and how she began to feel “weightless” as she recovered.

Like Nechayeva’s performance of “La Forza,” Miller-Heidke’s performance of “Zero Gravity” featured visual references to outer space: She and her backing dancers were attached to long cords as they stood and swayed before images of a starry night sky. While the verses were sung in a mid-range contemporary style, Miller-Heidke’s classical training came out in the choruses, featuring a staccato melody on the phrase “zero gravity,” and in the post-chorus and final chorus, which featured ascending melismas that gradually developed in intensity. While many fans were critical of Miller-Heidke in the leadup to Eurovision, she became a fan favorite in the week of the Contest and placed 9th out of 26. ¶

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