Sanremo Music Festival, Italy’s biggest song contest and one of the most popular live-streamed TV programmes in the country, was off to an odd start on Tuesday.
First of all, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s planned appearance during Sanremo’s closing night won’t happen through a video message, as widely expected.
Instead, after a group of politicians argued about Zelenskyy’s appearance being too political for the festival, the Ukrainian president will send a written text that will be read out loud by Sanremo’s presenter, TV host Amadeus.
The announcement was made after days of controversy.
"Let's hope that Sanremo will remain the Italian song festival and nothing else", said Matteo Salvini, Italy's deputy premier and leader of the right-wing Lega party. "I hope that the war will end as soon as possible and that the stage of the city of flowers (Sanremo) remains reserved for music."
Salvini also added that "an appearance at Sanremo will not put an end to this war".
Giuseppe Conte, former premier and leader of the populist Movimento 5 Stelle, said that he had been "very happy" when Zelenskyy was invited to address the Italian parliament last March but stressed: "I frankly don't believe that it is so necessary for President Zelenskyy to (appear) in a light context such as Sanremo."
Carlo Calenda, leader of the centrist Azione, wrote on Twitter: "There is little doubt about our line of support for Ukraine. However, I consider it a mistake to combine a musical event with the message of the President of a country at war.”
He added: “My concern is that Zelenskyy's presence at Sanremo could backfire on the Ukrainian cause and be instrumentalised by the pro-Putinists who have already used his presence at entertainment events in the past in this sense. I may be wrong. Or maybe you are wrong. These are opinions.”
Zelenskyy's planned video message received backlash from all sides of the political spectrum.
A group of left-wing politicians and intellectuals said it was planning to stage a protest on the streets of Sanremo on 11 February, and even launched an online petition against "the spectacularisation and militarisation" of the song contest.
"A ridiculous controversy"
Italian media were outraged by what they called a ridiculous controversy surrounding the Ukrainian president’s appearance, condemning those saying that the festival should be about music only and those suggesting Sanremo should have given space to Russian people too, to level things out.
It would have not been the first time Zelenskyy appeared with pre-recorded video messages and courted international A-listers to help with the war effort in Ukraine. He has done so at last year’s Grammy Awards, and at ceremonies during the Cannes and Venice film festivals and, two weeks ago, at the Golden Globes.
But in Italy, the quarrel surrounding Zelenskyy has something to do with the divisive way Italians see both the festival and the war in Ukraine.
For many, Sanremo is just about the songs and the stars on the stage. For just as many others, it’s a mirror of Italian society and an accurate representation of what’s going on in the country.
Italians are also divided on how they feel about the war in Ukraine. According to a recent survey run by Euromedia Research, 52 percent of Italians don’t support sending weapons to Ukraine, while 68 percent are opposed to NATO intervening in Ukraine’s defence. Previous surveys had shown similar results, with Italians condemning Russia’s role in starting the war but being convinced that military support to Ukraine will only prolong the war.
No bed of roses...
Politics aside, Sanremo started with a fair bit of drama this year, with last year’s winner Blanco trashing the roses on stage after experiencing a technical issue.
The flowers on stage are an important part of the festival’s identity, with an explosion of colours being present every year – and Blanco was booed by the audience for losing his temper so badly.
The singer said he couldn’t hear his own voice on the headphones he was wearing.
The annual song contest, which has often been used as a method for choosing the Italian entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, is a huge cultural event in Italy. It has promoted Italian music around the world since it started in 1951.
Recent winners include Italian rockers Måneskin, who will be attending as special guests this year.
The 2023 Sanremo Music Festival takes place from 7-11 February.