LONDON — Ecstatic cheers leapt through a purpose-built 3,000-seat hexagonal arena on Thursday night as the members of Abba – one of pop music’s giants – slowly emerged from under the stage, their classic 70s hairstyles ahead, to perform their first concert over 40 years.
As a synthesizer blared and lights pulsed, singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad threw her arms into the sky, revealing a huge cloak adorned with gold and fiery red feathers, as she sang the slow-burning disco of “The Visitors.” Standing in front of his synthesizer, Benny Andersson grinned as if he couldn’t believe he was back on stage. Björn Ulvaeus, the band’s guitarist, concentrated on his instrument. Agnetha Faltskog waved her arms in a hippie trance and added her voice to the chorus.
Soon Andersson took over the microphone. “I’m really Benny,” he said. “I just look really good for my age.”
The audience – some already dancing from their seats, glasses of rosé prosecco in hand – laughed as the commentary went straight to the heart of the event. The members of Abba on stage were not real; They were meticulous digital recreations made to look like the group in their 1979 heyday. The real Abba – whose members are all at least 72 years old – watched from the stands.
Thursday’s concert was the world premiere of Abba Voyage, a 90-minute extravaganza running seven times a week in London until at least December, with a possible extension to April 2026 when the Abba Arena permit expires and the country is designated for Reside.
During the show, the digital avatars – known as Abbatars – performed a series of hits with the help of a 10-piece live band and a series of lights, lasers and special effects. For the Spanish-tinged “Chiquitita,” the group sang before an eclipse. For Summer Night City’s stadium disco, she appeared in pyramids of blazing light, with the rings of Saturn swirling in the background. The avatars also appeared as 30-foot-tall figures on giant screens on the sides of the stage, as if filmed at a real concert. At some points, they popped up in dozens of spots on stage like they were in a maniacal music video.
Baillie Walsh, the show’s director, said the event was intended to be “a sensory overload.”
The project, which Walsh says has pushed digital concerts beyond the hologram performances that have made headlines in the past, is the result of years of secret work protected by hundreds of non-disclosure agreements. This included five weeks of filming for the real Abba in motion capture suits in Sweden; four body doubles; endless debates about the setlist; and 140 animators from Industrial Light & Magic (known as ILM), a visual effects company founded by George Lucas that typically works on Hollywood blockbusters.
Svana Gisla and Andersson’s son Ludvig Andersson, the producers of the event, said in an interview last Friday that during the eight years they’ve been working on the show’s development, they’ve had to deal with a variety of issues, including challenges with the Fundraising and broken toilets.
“It was stressful,” Andersson said, looking exhausted and sucking on a mango-flavored vape pen. “But make no mistake,” he added, “nothing was more pleasant than this.”
The idea came about around 2014, Gisla said, when she was brought in to help create music videos for the band using digital avatars, a process that was “an absolute nightmare,” she said. Around 2016, Simon Fuller, the producer behind the “Idol” franchise and the Spice Girls, proposed a show with a 3-D version of the group “singing” while being backed by a live band. (Fuller is no longer involved.)
The group had to get creative because Faltskog and Lyngstad had made it clear they “didn’t want to tour,” Andersson told the New York Times in 2021. But the quartet wanted to bring fresh music to the show. So they secretly got back together to work out a couple of songs that grew into something bigger: “Voyage,” Abba’s first new album in four decades, released last year.
The team quickly realized that holograms weren’t cutting edge; just as little as a multitude of other technologies. “We kissed a lot of frogs,” said Gisla. It wasn’t until they met representatives from Industrial Light & Magic that she felt they had found a company capable of making “really compelling digital humans” who could “walk, spin, perform in floodlights.” The key, Ulvaeus said in a video interview, is “that they connect emotionally with an audience.”
During test shoots in fall 2019, the male members of the group “jumped in without hesitation,” said Ben Morris, creative director of ILM. (The musicians’ biggest concern? Shaving off their beards. “I was afraid of what I would find underneath,” Ulvaeus said.) Lyngstad had just had hip surgery and used a cane. “But we started playing a few songs and she slowly slid off the stool, stood up and said, ‘Take my cane away,'” Morris recalled.
The following spring, the band was filmed by around 200 cameras in Sweden for five weeks while playing their hits over and over again. British ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor and four body doubles, chosen from hundreds of hopefuls, watched, intent on learning every move, posture and expression of the band so they could imitate their members and then expand their moves to reflect the to develop the final choreography of the show.
Steve Aplin, motion director at ILM for the event, said they went through “literally hundreds” of iterations of each avatar to get them right and also modeled clothes designed by stylist B. Akerlund. The hardest to reach was Andersson, he added, since “his personality is the sparkle in his eyes.”
While the Abbatars were being developed, the 10-piece band was formed and Gisla raised funds (the final budget was £140m, or about $175m, she said), developed an arena capable of performing with the entire circumventing technology and trying to keep the huge project under wraps. A moment of potential danger came in December 2019 when the team submitted a planning application to London authorities that included the word “logo” on technical drawings of the building instead of “Abba” in the hope that nobody would investigate further.
As the coronavirus pandemic hit, a project that “already seemed ridiculous before Covid” became “doubly ridiculous,” Gisla said, as she asked supporters to trust the idea of 3,000 people wanting to dance side by side in the near future. Materials for soundproofing the arena got bogged down almost outside Britain when a ship jammed in the Suez Canal; The wood for the facade of the building was supposed to come from Russia, but was sourced from Germany at increased cost after Russia invaded Ukraine.
When asked what he went through creating the project, Walsh replied, “A nervous breakdown,” then laughed.
Abba Voyage is not the only Abba-themed event in London; the perennial hit Mamma Mia! The West End musical also regularly attracts boisterous bachelor and birthday parties. Gisla said that like a West End show, Abba Voyage would need to sell about 80 per cent of its seats to make a profit. Tickets start at £31 or $38, although few of those cheap first run seats appear to be available. Attendees pay more—starting at $67—for a seat on a dance floor in front of the stage.
Andersson, the producer, said he obviously hoped Abba Voyage would be a commercial success – as did the members of Abba, who are investors – but insisted he was glad the team just got through after so much effort “created something beautiful”. Ulvaeus said he wouldn’t be surprised if some of the group’s contemporaries considered a similar endeavor: “Of course, if they asked my advice, I would say, ‘It takes a long time and is very expensive.'”
At Thursday’s premiere, the audience was divided between invited celebrities in the stands (including Sweden’s King and Queen) and members of Abba’s fan club on the dance floor, but in both areas people embraced for joy at the sound of beloved songs and danced and sang along . The fact that the band on stage weren’t the flesh-and-blood originals didn’t seem to matter. For “Waterloo,” the Abbatars simply unveiled a giant video of their 1974 Eurovision performance and danced their way backstage to wild cheers from the crowd.
Jarvis Cocker of the band Pulp said he was “put into a state of confusion” by the show. “I felt very emotional at certain times during this performance, which I call a performance, but it wasn’t — it was a projection,” he said. He added, “But I don’t know what that means for the future of mankind.” He suggested that Avatar shows starring the Beatles and Elvis Presley weren’t far behind.
The fans outside were too overwhelmed to care about the show’s impact on the live music industry. Teresa Harle, 55, a postal worker who was with a friend and ran to the front of the arena for the best view, said she found the avatars so compelling that she even waved to Faltskog when the show ended.
“It was a once in a lifetime experience,” said Harle, “although we’ll be back tomorrow and Saturday.”
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