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TEL AVIV - US pop icon Madonna was to launch her hotly-anticipated MDNA world tour with a show in Tel Aviv on Thursday, kicking off a roadtrip of more than 80 countries in what will be her longest-ever.
When she hits the stage at Ramat Gan stadium on Thursday night with what promises to be an eye-popping extravaganza, the 53-year-old Queen of Pop will be embarking on her ninth world tour, this time in support of her new album MDNA.
Announced in February, the tour -- Madonna's first first since her wildly successful "Sticky and Sweet" outing in 2008 and 2009 -- will move from Israel to Abu Dhabi and on to Europe and the Americas.
It is expected to draw to a close in early 2013 in Australia where the singer has not performed in more than 20 years.
Kicking off her latest tour in Israel was a natural choice for the Catholic-born singer who over the past decade has become deeply involved in the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, which has brought her to the Jewish state on a number of public and private visits.
She last performed in Israel in 2009 during her "Sticky and Sweet" tour, when she met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visited the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray.
During the show, which was to kick off at 1745 GMT, Madonna was to perform more than 20 songs, most of them from her new album.
But she was also expected to belt out some of her best-known hits from the 80s such as "Like a Virgin", Material Girl" and "Papa Don't Preach."
And there was speculation she might perform a mashup of "Express Yourself" with Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" which was released last year, sparking criticism it was uncannily similar to Madonna's 1989 hit.
Earlier this week, a video of Madonna rehearsing popped up on YouTube showing what appeared to be Madonna singing her own song, then cutting into the Lady Gaga version during the chorus.
Many online newsites said her two older children -- 15-year-old Lourdes, and 12-year-old Rocco -- would also take part in the show.
"This show is epic and bigger than anything she’s done before. There are many more costume changes. We’re taking 700 shoes on the road," her costume designer and stylist Arianne Phillips told the WWD website.
"Madonna changes outfits seven or eight times and the dancers change 10 to 15 times, depending on the dancer," she said.
The first full dress rehearsal reportedly took place on Monday night, with the ever-controversial songstress pointing a gun at the crowd, as her dancers writhed around with machineguns and rifles.
Four years ago, she was criticized by anti-gun groups after sporting a pair of Chanel shoes with heels shaped like pistols.
Another incident which caught the headlines was when one of her dancers called Lilou, tweeted a picture of himself at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City in which he wrote: "Don't want to say Israel but Palestine."
The flashpoint compound, which is the third holiest site in Islam, is the former site of two Jewish Temples and revered as the most sacred place in Judaism.
Thursday evening's show at Ramat Gan stadium, which has a capacity of 35,000, was completely sold out. But a day ahead of the performance, the diminutive diva briefly met with members of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum and handed them 600 tickets.
"We spoke to her for a few minutes and we asked if she would say anything about peace," Peace Now's Yariv Oppenheimer told AFP, saying it was the forum's first-ever contact with the petite singer, who has largely steered clear of getting involved with issues linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"She told us: I will say much more than a word about it."
Since she arrived in Israel late on Friday on an El Al flight from New York, Madonna has reportedly spent much of the time rehearsing, praying or attending Kabbalah events.
Her partner Brahim Zaibat, a French-Algerian model in his 20s, also flew in with her, as did her four children, Lourdes, Rocco, David and Mercy, with pictures of them enjoying the beach splashed across the newspapers.
More than 4,000 fans have flown into Israel to attend the concert, with each paying from $62 (50 euros) for ticket up to $620 for a VIP package, including a seat in the specially-constructed Diamond area, which is part of the stage.
Ahead of her arrival, the Material Girl asked for the stadium to include sleeping accommodation for her and her family, a games area for her kids and a lounge in which she will be interviewed by US TV host Conan O'Brian, who has flown in specially, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported.
The Tel Aviv show is reported to have cost $3.9 million (3.1 million euros).
As for the outfits, Madge has reportedly signed up a list of designers including Jean Paul Gaultier, Jeremy Scott, Alexander Wang, Dolce & Gabbana, Fausto Puglisi and J Brand.
She will also be wearing Prada and Miu Miu shoes, as well as footwear and lingerie from her Truth or Dare line, with her signature conical bra also set to make an appearance.