Inside the Eurovision Song Contest, with Two Journalists, 23 Pop Tunes, 847 Martin Lights, and 38,000 Danish Fans

It's two and a half hours until curtain time, but the crowd is already present in droves. There are men in jeans and men in tuxedos, women in red crushed velvet evening gowns and women in snakeskin pants and matching boots. One man makes an entrance in red spangled pants and black cape, while two girls have combined evening gowns and Viking hats with horns. There are older couples with canes and wheelchairs, families with children, and drag queens with sky-high wigs and platform shoes. There is, inexplicably, a couple sporting Santa Claus hats. Behind a barricade, at the back of the room, in a standing area, a group of young people is wrapped in various European flags, many with their faces painted their national colors. Every so often, the crowd begins chanting, “Den-MARK! Den-MARK!” Then they do the wave. Believe me, you haven't lived until you've seen 38,000 Danes doing the wave.

I've certainly never seen anything like it. But then, I've never been in Parken, a football stadium in Copenhagen, before. And I've certainly never attended the Eurovision Song Contest. But that's where I am, along with Jackie Tien, my publisher. I am skeptical, jet-lagged, steeling myself for a three-hour concert of trashy Europop. Jackie, who is a naturally nicer person, appears to be genuinely excited. She doesn't mind doing the wave at all.

A EUROPEAN UNION

To most Americans, the term Eurovision sounds like an organization opposed by Margaret Thatcher, but, to the 23 European countries taking part, the Eurovision Song Contest is Miss America, the Academy Awards, and the World Cup of soccer all rolled into one. Ever since its maiden broadcast in 1956, it has been beloved, derided, worshipped, chronicled, mocked, and debated — but never ignored. Go to the Internet and plug in the words “Eurovision Song Contest,” and count the dozens of web pages posted by fans. (There's even a page devoted to the “Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game,” whatever that may be.) Many singers have boosted their careers by appearing at Eurovision, including a little group you may have heard of called ABBA.

During the Eurovision Song Contest, which is broadcast live throughout Europe, 23 countries compete for the title of best pop song of the year. Each country has three minutes to present its song; there is a 45-second interval between each number, which is filled with a “video postcard,” a short film introducing the next competing country (there are no commercials). The order of the songs is chosen by a draw. After the numbers are presented, viewers have five minutes to dial a local number and elect the winner. You cannot vote for your own country, which prevents nations like Germany and France from winning through sheer numbers. Scoring is done according to a proportional system; the results are called in live from each capital city. The winning country then gets to host the following year's broadcast.

Which is why we are in Denmark on this Saturday night in May. In 2000, Eurovision was held in Sweden, but the winning country was Denmark, with the song “Fly on the Wings of Love,” sung by Jorgen and Niels Olsen. And, tonight, on May 12, 2001, the broadcast has come home to Denmark, for the first time since 1964. The producers, from the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, have determined that this should be the most spectacular Eurovision Song Contest ever.

KEEP OFF THE GRASS

According to Jurgen Ramskov, the executive producer for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Eurovision is currently enjoying a comeback after years of declining popularity. “In the 1980s and early 90s, it became too kitschy,” he says, a frightening thought given the look of this year's show. He backs up his statement with statistics: Two years ago, in Israel, the event attracted a live audience of 1,200. But last year's event, in Sweden, drew some 30,000, thanks to an elaborate production that signaled a resurgence of interest in Eurovision (of course, the broadcast is seen by millions). The plan this year is to keep the momentum going with a show that outdoes the Swedish staging.

This year's broadcast, in Parken, accommodated 38,000. (This is only the tip of the iceberg: 25,000 people attended the dress rehearsal the night before, and another 20,000 were there for a final run-through on Saturday afternoon, which means some 83,000 passed through the stadium in two days.) Parken was chosen partly because it added a new retractable roof so the show could go on even in inclement weather. This decision was controversial on some fronts, however; as in most of Europe, football is a sacred rite in Denmark, and guarantees were required that the stadium's grass would not be harmed. Thus, a wooden deck, for the audience seating, was built over the playing field. Before it was installed, the stadium's greenskeeper demanded that the roof be opened each day to allow sunlight in, even as the show's massive light rig was being hung. (“He's a fan of grass, but not of song contests,” says Ramskov.)

If Eurovision was intended to showcase Danish production skills, it is only natural that Martin Professional should be the major lighting supplier. In fact, the company signed on as a corporate sponsor of the event. The Martin equipment was supplied by SeeLite, a distributor that has, in the past, directly competed with Martin for contracts. However, in the weeks before the concert, SeeLite acquired Martin's rental operation (Martin has remade itself as a sales-only company, leaving rentals to others); many former Martin staffers are now working for SeeLite, which has become a top Martin distributor. Among those involved in the project were Brian Fribourg, managing director, Martin Denmark; Frank Paulsen, managing director, SeeLite; Jens Ole Christensen, rental manager, SeeLite; and Martin Svane, rigging specialist, SeeLite. Briger Christensen provided scenic design.

SeeLite was originally hired to do the rigging for the event, which should have been enough of a challenge for anyone. The broadcast took place on a 90m-wide (300') stage with 65m-wide (215') video wall. Thirty towers, suspended from the ceiling, provided positions for audience lighting. Above the stage, a grid was installed, with I-beams and 24 trolleys; suspended from the latter were motorized hoists holding eight pieces of curved truss (ChainMaster supplied the trolleys, hoists, and computer control system) that moved constantly during the show, at times forming the Eurovision logo, a series of circles that make a kind of butterfly pattern. The vertical truss structure behind the stage held 24 projection screens that, at different times, featured close-ups of the performers and dedicated video sequences for each number; the screens also provided a projection surface for moving lights. (Video was delivered via Barco projectors. The actual broadcast, as seen on television, was also shown on two Sony screens placed on either side of the concert stage.) But SeeLite ultimately provided the lighting as well, including 399 Martin MAC 600s, 193 MAC 2000s, 32 MAC 500s, 48 MAC 300s, 78 Martin Atomic strobes, 26 Martin Exterior 200s, 20 Exterior 600s, 22 Space Cannon Ireos Pro 7ks, 456 PAR-64 ACLs, 190 PAR-64s, 54 DeSisti 5ks, 24 Thomas PAR-36 9-lights, and 319 Strand 2ks. (The German company Procon was subcontracted to provide most of the conventional units.) To accommodate the weight of the rig, two large support towers were added to the Parken roof.

Lars Nissen of SeeLite, who has both concert and broadcast experience, was appointed lighting designer for the project. One of his toughest challenges was dealing with 23 different acts, all of which had their own requirements. “Four weeks ago,” he says on the day of the broadcast, “I received the lineup of songs. I listened to them, and made notes. We began designing in early April,” working with associates Frank Beck and Leif Hellberg on WYSIWYG. To control the lighting, Nissen chose the Vari*Lite® Virtuoso console; four of them were linked together, an approach that was crucial to getting the lighting and programming completed in the short time frame. “The multiple consoles, running on the same system, allow you to have a console outside the stadium, while still being able to work simultaneously on other consoles inside the stadium,” he continues. All the cue data resided in the primary console, but different aspects of the rig could be captured on different boards, allowing two programmers to work on several things at once.

The entire show was run on MIDI time code, which meant that board operator Andy Voller, of Vari-Lite Production Services in London, could trigger the entire cue sequence for a number by pushing a single button. “No other desk I am aware of can handle 26 DMX universes,” adds Voller. SAMSC software, designed by Richard Bleasdale, received time code from the TV truck and triggered the primary Virtuoso cue by cue during a song. The Virtuoso would receive this as a MIDI trigger, which advanced a master cue list on the console. The master cue list would then coordinate all the actions on the console for a given cue. The whole show was run from a single console with two other consoles online standing by as backups with 26 DMX universes spread all over the stadium.

But then, Nissen's lighting covered the entire stadium, an approach that allowed the television cameras to capture the audience in extreme long shots. Aside from units placed in the obvious locations above the stage and in side positions, and the 30 ceiling towers for audience lighting, there was lighting almost anywhere you looked. The Space Cannons were distributed around the stadium on ground level. Exterior 600s were placed behind and below the set, with Exterior 200s also located below, to create an aura of light that helped to “float” the stage. Forty-eight MAC 500s formed a dedicated rig for the pop band Aqua, best known for the song “Barbie Girl,” which entertained the crowd during the voting. Nissen consulted closely with P.W. Murphy, Aqua's LD on this sequence; the Aqua rig was run off a separate control system, powered by a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II console.

The load-in for the broadcast took six days, according to Jens Ole Christensen, formerly of Martin and now of SeeLite. The grass was covered less than 48 hours before the broadcast. Before that, no crewmember was allowed to step on the football field; which often meant long detours to get from one place to another. But then, says Christensen, who understands his fellow citizens and their mania for sports, “This is the most holy spot in Copenhagen.”

THE BATTLE OF THE BANDS

During the pre-show activities, the question that has everyone buzzing is, who will win? Since this is Denmark, there is plenty of support for Rollie & King, this year's Danish contenders; ads have been placed on bus stops all over town wishing them good luck. At one point, we hear that the Swedish group Friends, widely acknowledged to be an ABBA clone, has a lock on the award. Later, someone from Martin says that Malta is expected to do very well. Still later, a technician says that the French singer is now the favorite. Every hour or so, rumors dethrone the current leader and enshrine another. Wild cards are examined: For years, Ireland won repeatedly, and the United Kingdom is frequently popular. Sooner or later in these discussions, someone points out that none of the songs is very good, adding that the entire competition is really very silly. Then they all go back to second-guessing the results.

It's showtime; the broadcast begins with the Olsen Brothers reprising their triumph from last year, accompanied by four young women, dressed in spangled kilts, playing bagpipes. It's an event that sets the tone for what is to come. Then our hosts, Nastsja Crone and Søren Pilmark, deliver the famous greeting, “Good evening, Europe,” a traditional invocation, followed by tumultuous applause. The musical numbers come in rapid succession. Nissen has devised different schemes of colors and patterns for each song. The Dutch contestant, Michelle, appears in a wash of blue generated by units placed close to the stage floor. At one point she lies prone on the stage and the overhead circular rig lowers, washing her with blue light. The group Two Tricky, from Iceland, gets a white wash, with confetti-shaped patterns working the screens. The Swedish group, Friends, gets a mixture of pink and green, with MACs scanning the audience throughout the song. The Slovenian number, “Energy” (it's the kind of techno tune Cher ought to take a look at), features chase sequences of strobes set to the song's insistent beat.

By this time, we are totally, madly caught up in the competition, making finely calibrated judgments after each song — as if we know what we're talking about. (Two hours later, back at the hotel, neither one of us will be able to recall one tune, but that doesn't matter in the heat of competition.) Two Tricky, we decide, is too smarmy. Gary O'Shaugnessey, from Ireland, is sweet, but lacking in personality. The Norwegian contestant, Haldor Laegreid, has a strong voice, but is too self-regarding. On the other hand, we cheer for Fabrizio Faniello from Malta, and join in the ovation for Rollie & King, who close the show. Gripping feelings of suspense have taken over, fueled by free glasses of champagne. Deep, probing questions are posed: Isn't David Civera, the Spanish entry, a little too much like Ricky Martin? What was Russia thinking when it entered the unappealing Mumiy Troll? Why are the Dutch and German entries both named Michelle? How will we ever explain this event back home?

MOMENT OF TRUTH

It's time for the voting. Aqua performs a couple of numbers, with lots of fog and pyro effects, and a mirror ball with motor control by Skjonberg Controls. Five minutes later, the ballot count begins. Our hosts connect with live hookups from each country, where the individual results are announced. The voting quickly turns into a horse race, between Estonia and, yes, Denmark. The crowd, already tense with excitement, bursts into cheers every time Denmark pulls ahead. A few other countries, including France, make strong starts but fall by the wayside. (Jackie and I are personally mortified for Ireland, which barely has any votes until the United Kingdom tosses it a few points.) Towards the end, however, Denmark falls fatally behind, and the winner is, of all countries, Estonia, with the song “Everybody,” performed by Tanal Padar and Dave Benton. Tanal and Dave are not your typical Estonian pop act, by the way: Tanal is blond and Estonian, and Dave is black and from Aruba. But their evident rapport onstage, with its implicit message of racial harmony, seems to carry the day (or so it seems to us, now Eurovision experts after 24 hours).

The Danish, it must be said, are gracious in defeat; they give the Estonians a reasonably strong round of applause, and the mood after the performance is remarkably free of rancor. The crowd slowly (and in some cases, drunkenly) makes its way out of the auditorium and down the street, where city buses are waiting to take them away. It's surprising to see so much excitement dissipate so quickly. Was it all a dream? However, we pass an apartment building, where, on the fourth floor, the window is open; hanging out of it is a huge piece of cloth on which has been written, “Olsen Brothers Forever.” My sentiments exactly.

There is a postscript: As this article is being written, the head of Estonian TV has announced that his organization may not have the resources to mount the Eurovision Song Contest. According to one of the Eurovision websites, “The government has promised 37,000,000 Estonian kroons, but ETV's director general Aare Urm says that this is still not enough.” Apparently, if Estonia falls through, Malta has offered to host the affair. I briefly feel sad for Tanal and Dave, then worry that I am losing my mind. On the other hand, a trip to Malta might be nice.

News flash: The latest from my favorite Eurovision website (www.eurosong.net, if you care) reveals that Estonia will host next year's Eurovision after all. It says, “The proposed venue for the contest is the Saku Suurhall, which is situated just outside the capital, Tallinn. The stadium has not yet been completed, but it should be ready by November. It is said that there should be room for just under 10,000 people to attend, which would make it the third biggest contest ever in terms of audience attendance.” Does anyone know the number for Estonian Air?

Contact the author at dbarbour@intertec.com.