MILAN (Reuters Life!) - Drag queens and masked dogs competing for best outfit are some of the novelties spicing up this year’s Venice carnival that opens on Friday with parades, balls, concerts and shows of every kind.
More than a million visitors will visit the city built on water over the next twelve days, vastly outnumbering the 62,000 residents of the city’s historical centre.
In an effort to update the centuries-old celebration, this year the city has expanded the scope of attractions to include 30 drag queens performing to 1980s music, a parade of masked dogs, exhibitions of hunting with falcons and live outdoor theatre.
In the evenings the squares will resonate with the sounds of tango, operas, a samba marching band, Brazilian carnival dancers and concerts of all sorts of music, from Venetian ska to disco, from alternative rock to Mozart.
The carnival began centuries ago as moment of licentiousness during which Venetians could hide their identities behind masks and do as they pleased.
It was a pressure valve to ease class tensions, allowing the poor, for a brief and controlled period, to break Venice’s rigid, oligarchical social order.
Yet, just as in the past, the poor may mix with the rich in the streets but will not be able to enter the exclusive events that are the carnival’s highlights: the all-night masked balls in private palaces on the Grand Canal, the city’s main waterway.
The balls recreate the lavish atmosphere of the 1700s and can cost as much as 430 euros ($630) a head to attend, not including the rental of the hand-made, tailored historical costumes for hundreds more.
At these balls for the fortunate few, guests enjoy extravagant dinners while being entertained by opera singers, dancers and actors. After dinner there are formal dances, followed by more shows, dancing to DJs playing contemporary music, and breakfast at dawn with hot chocolate and pastries.
One of the better known is the Ballo del Doge, organized by Venetian noblewoman and costume designer Antonia Sautter. This year her 400 guests are promised eight hours of shows as 80 artists will entertain them in the 15th century Pisani Moretta palazzo lit by 1500 candles.
One of the most alluring events may well be Passion Rouge, a dinner held at the luxury Hotel Bauer’s De Pisis restaurant, with its terrace overlooking the Grand Canal and a minute away from Venice’s main Piazza San Marco.
For the mouth and nose, Passion Rouge includes marinated swordfish, foie gras, pumpkin risotto with ginger and prawns, glazed leg of veal and zabaglione dessert, washed down with wines from Tuscany and Piedmont.
For the eyes and ears there will be tango, chanson Parisienne, opera, Berlin cabaret, a flamenco dancer, comedians and a fortune teller to reveal what the year holds in store.
The carnival begins in earnest this weekend with the flight of the angel on Sunday, during which an acrobat is lowered from the top of the San Marco bell tower to the lodge of the Palazzo Ducale.
The ceremony used to be called the flight of the Turk and dates from five centuries ago when a young Turkish acrobat walked a tight rope stretched from a ship anchored at the pier of San Marco square all the way to the top of the San Marco bell tower.
The carnival’s grand-finale will be a fireworks show on the night of February 5, best watched from a boat to see the colorful explosions reflected on the water.
Reporting by Mathias Wildt, editing by Paul Casciato