LIVERPOOL, U.K. — The Eurovision Song Contest 2023 kicked off Tuesday with a jubilant party of elaborate PVC costumes, soaring rock ballads and cheesy Euro pop, as contestants competed in the first of two semi-finals to determine which 20 acts would move on to Saturday’s Grand Final.
The semi-final at the 11,000-capacity M&S Bank Arena, standing on Liverpool’s waterfront next to the River Mersey, marked the official start of the annual competition. The 10 acts moving on were Croatia, Moldova, Switzerland, Finland, Czechia, Israel, Portugal, Sweden, Serbia and Norway. That means the Netherlands, Malta, Latvia, Ireland and Azerbaijan were eliminated.
The United Kingdom is hosting this year’s Eurovision Song Contest – famous for introducing ABBA to the world – on behalf of war-torn Ukraine, which won last year’s competition with “Stefania” by Ukrainian rap-folk band Kalush Orchestra (the U.K. finished second through Sam Ryder’s “Space Man”).
It is the first time that the U.K. has held the contest in 25 years with Liverpool – whose illustrious music history includes The Beatles and Echo & the Bunnymen — fully embracing its role as host city.
Memorable highlights (although not always for the right reasons) included Croatia’s Let 3, who stripped down to their underwear as they wielded giant missile props for their song “Mama ŠČ!”, and Israel’s Noa Kirel with her marauding dance pop track “Unicorn.”
Some of the night’s biggest cheers went to two of this year’s favorites to take home the main prize: Sweden’s Loreen, who won the competition in 2012 and performed “Tattoo” on Tuesday; and Finnish rapper Käärijä, who sung his catchy song “Cha Cha Cha,” semi-topless, wearing only black spiky trousers and bright green Incredible Hulk-style sleeves.
In a mid-show interval of the two-and-a-half-hour show Rita Ora also performed a medley of her biggest hits, including singles “Anywhere,” “I Will Never Let You Down” and Praising You.”
Other non-competition performers included Liverpool singer Rebecca Ferguson and Ukraine’s Alyosha in a duet of Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World,” which they dedicated to refugees who had been forced to leave their country.
The semi-final was hosted by British TV personality and singer Alesha Dixon, “Ted Lasso” star Hannah Waddingham and Ukrainian singer Julia Sanina — who opened the show with her band The Hardkiss. It was broadcast live on television in the U.K. and throughout Europe.
In total, 37 countries are taking part in this year’s contest. Ukraine automatically qualifies for the final as 2022 winners, as do the so-called ‘big five’: the U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Spain, who all get a free pass to the main show because of their financial contributions to the event.
Viewers in participating countries vote to decide the winner, although people can’t vote for an act from their own country. The second semi-final takes place on Thursday when another 16 acts will perform.
In the runup to the competition, Liverpool has been transformed into a vibrant display of Eurovision banners and Ukrainian flags.
Ahead of Thursday’s semi-final, the English National Opera put on a free show at the purpose-built fan village on Liverpool’s Pier Head, where they were joined by a series of former Eurovision contestants, including singer Ruslana, who won for Ukraine in 2004, and international opera stars who performed classical arrangements of some of the contest’s past hits.
“I bring one message: Listen my sisters and brothers, we need to stop this bloody terrible war as soon as possible,” Ruslana said. “And I ask you, just help Ukraine to win. Because we are fighting for freedom. We are fighting for light. The light of human heart.”
This story originally appeared on Billboard