Switzerland's national exhibition, Expo.02, officially got underway on Tuesday with a ceremony in the lakeside town of Neuchâtel.
The exhibition, which runs for a period of six months, features four arteplages, or lakeside platforms, in Biel, Neuchâtel, Murten and Yverdon-les-Bains.
All seven members of the Swiss cabinet, including the 2002 president, Kaspar Villiger, joined some 2300 guests from the worlds of politics, culture and business for Tuesday's grand opening.
"Today we are beginning a great festival," said the president of the Expo.02 steering committee, Franz Steinegger, "to which we invite not just those who live in Switzerland, but also guests from abroad."
A swissinfo correspondent at the opening ceremony, Samantha Tonkin, said there was a "great sense of expectation" as the festivities got underway.
"There's a real sense of excitement...it seems that people are really looking forward to coming to Expo," she said.
During his own opening remarks, Villiger said he was confident the Swiss would rally together to support the national project.
"Switzerland would not be Switzerland if its exhibition projects did not first of all divide public opinion," said Villiger.
"Such was the case in 1896, 1914, 1939 and 1964. Nevertheless, each time when the festivals have got off the ground, they have contributed to our sense of identity, and really achieved something of which we as a country can be proud," he concluded.
Expo.02 is Switzerland's first national exhibition since 1964 and has been billed as a showcase for Switzerland and a celebration of its multicultural society.
Song for Earth
Around 450 singers, together with 200 instrumentalists from all over Europe, marked the occasion by giving the first-ever live performance of "A Song of Earth", a piece of music specially composed for Expo.02.
The ceremony was followed by a specially-choreographed play in three acts, staged on four floating platforms on three different lakes.
The opening event, which has been put together by Swiss director François Rochaix, was being staged simultaneously in four different locations across western Switzerland's "Three Lakes Region".
The "arteplages", as the platforms are called, formed the backdrop for this vast theatrical production, which involved more than 1700 actors and technicians, and cost SFr15 million ($10 million).
A host of musicians, singers, fire-eaters, mime artists, jugglers, swimmers and divers were also drafted in to make their mark on the evening.
"The whole gigantic spectacle will culminate in brief but dramatic fireworks," said swissinfo correspondent Samantha Tonkin, "before the four arteplages are illuminated."
Around 4.8 million people are expected to have visited the different Expo.02 sites by the time the country's national exhibition closes its doors to the public for the last time on October 20.
swissinfo with agencies