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Genres: Who is the phantom of the opera at Eurovision?

27 October 2017 at 17:00 CEST
Malena Ernman for Sweden in 2009 with La Voix EBU
We are continuing our series looking at different musical genres in the Eurovision Song Contest and today it’s all about opera!

Opera music and songs with an operatic musical style have been performed on the Eurovision stage throughout the decades and today we are looking at just a few examples. 

Opera has been present in the Eurovision Song Contest right from the beginning. The very first entry from the United Kingdom, All performed by Patricia Bredin in 1957, can be considered to be the first opera-influenced entry in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest. It was also a short one, lasting only one minute and 48 seconds. For years it was the shortest entry in the history of the contest until Finland's entry in 2015, Aina Mun Pitää, which lasted one minute and 27 seconds. That song was definitely not opera though!

In the early years, and over the course of the history of the Eurovision Song Contest, many singers had either training or experience in opera, but let’s focus on a country that we specifically associate with opera, Austria.

The first entry from Austria, in 1957, Wohin Kleines Pony was performed by Vienna State Opera chorus singer Bob Martin, who came last. They fared a bit better in 1960 with a composition by the world famous operetta composer Robert Stoltz, who also conducted the orchestra, but still Du Hast Mich So Fasziniert finished seventh out of 13. After these failures Austria entered some classical operetta in 1962. The opus was performed by Eleonore Schwarz, who was wearing a ball gown, but it didn’t prove a wiser move as, despite the tour de force, Nur In Der Wiener Luft finished last for Austria again and with 0 points, joined by other three countries.

Opera performer Ingvar Wixell represented Sweden in 1965 and performed his song in English. It was the first time that the country had not sung in Swedish in the Contest, and it was also the first time that a country in the contest was not represented by the national language. All the other participants used the official languages of the countries they represented. This led to a rule being introduced for the 1966 contest, stating that all participants had to perform their songs using one of their national languages. While the language rule has been changed over the years, so have Swedish fortunes in the competition: Ingvar's Absent Friend finished 10th out of 18.

Sweden’s entry from 2009 was another dramatic number which saw singer Malena Ernman mix operatic high notes with modern dance beats in her song La Voix. She progressed to the Grand Final in Moscow, only to end in the bottom five there.

Let's talk about opera

The very first song performed in the Eurovision Song Contest in the 1980s was called Du Bist Musik (You are music) which mentioned 25 composers in the first verse only. Coming from Austria, they had to name some of their most popular names in opera like Schubert, Mozart or Offenbach. The song itself, a kind of love pop ballad, had nothing to do with the genre though.

Still, the easiest entry to relate to opera would appear in the 1980s, because its title was precisely Opera, the Turkish entry in 1983. Despite reciting the world's most famous titles and composers of the genre and repeating the word "Opera" more than twenty times, the song hit the high notes with the juries and Çetin Alp & The Short Wave finished last with zero points.

Turkey's song wouldn’t be the last “opera” piece in the eighties though. One year after the Turkish debacle, Italy was represented by I Treni Di Tozeur with Franco Battiato, Alice and three classically trained mezzo-sopranos. At the contest in Luxembourg, the three backing-singers wore red, white and evening gowns, the colours of the Italian flag, but in a different order. They stood silently for more than two minutes and a half until they performed eight seconds from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Most recently, Italy’s Il Volo hit the high notes with their song Grande Amore which finished third in Vienna in 2015. Whilst the group did not win the contest outright, they did win the public vote, proving that opera is still appreciated in the modern Eurovision Song Contest.

Croatia's entry in 1995, Nostalgija, was performed the decorated opera singer Lidija Horvat-Dunjko who, along with the group Magazin, finished sixth at the end of the voting, one of Croatia’s best results in the competition.

The 2007 Eurovision Song Contest featured two operatic songs. Slovenia’s entry, performed by Alenka Gotar, saw the country qualify for the Grand Final for the first time since the semis were introduced in 2004. Latvia’s popera entry, Questa Notte, was performed in Italian by the group One of the participants of the group, Roberto Meloni, represented Latvia again the following year with a song, Pirates Of The Sea, which couldn’t be less opera if it tried!

But… who won the “Opera competition” in 2007? It was incredibly close, with Slovenia's Cvet Z Juga finishing 15th, one place higher than Latvia.

Male operatic pop

In 2011 France was one of the favourites to win the contest with the song Sognu, performed by Amaury Vassili. He was selected internally and according to France Televisions it was because “an opera singer was the most elegant option”. Sognu was performed in Corsican, a language very close to Italian which suited the operatic style of the song. Sadly for Amaury he ended up in 15th place in Düsseldorf.

Romania has entered several operatic songs in Eurovision. In 2002 tenor Marcel Pavel duetted with Monica Anghel and in 2008 female singer Nico was accompanied by another tenor, Vlad Miriță. Their entry from 2013, It’s My Life performed by Cezar is one of their more memorable entries. Thanks to his ambitious special vocal techniques, an unmistakable sound and a unique performance, Romania placed 13th in the Grand Final in Malmö. Cezar also featured in our special Halloween compilation video last year.

When it comes to operatic songs, Croatia has been the most loyal to the genre. In 2013 the group Klapa S Mora featured two tenors, two baritons and two bass singers, but their song Mišerja didn't reach the Grand Final. In the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest Croatia sent even more opera with "Mr Voice", Jacques Houdek. He is one of the biggest pop stars in Croatia and a multi-award winning artist. His song for the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest was entitled My Friend and saw him duet with... himself!

Opening up opera

It’s not just the participants who have performed opera on the Eurovision stage. Presenter of the 2002 Eurovision Song Contest, Annely Peebo performed the song A Little Story In The Music, alongside co-host Marko Matvere during the show. British opera singer Lesley Garrett participated in the interval of the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest, performing some of the longest operatic notes ever heard on the Eurovision stage.

Other examples of operatic songs in the Eurovision Song Contest include Bulgaria 2009 with Krassimir Avramov's Illusion, Israel in 2004 with Le'ha'amin by David D'or and Malta the same year with On Again, Off Again by Julie & Ludwig. Performers that have been trained in opera include Lindita who represented Albania this year or the most recent Ukranian winner, Jamala.

Operatic songs have also featured in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest. Malta's entry in 2014, Diamonds, performed by the young opera performer Federica Falzon, finished fourth on home ground.

What is your favourite operatic song at Eurovision? Let us know in the comments!