LONDON — Ecstatic cheers echoed Thursday night around a purpose-built 3,000-capacity hexagonal arena as the members of Abba — one of the pop music giants — slowly emerged from beneath the stage, their classic 1970s hairstyles leading the way, to play their first concert in more than 40 years.
As a synth blared and the lights pulsed, singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad turned her arms to the sky, revealing a huge cape adorned with gold and crimson feathers, as she sang the slow-burning disco of “The Visitors.” Benny Andersson, ready for his synth, grinned as if he couldn’t believe he was back on stage. Bjorn Ulvaeus, the band’s guitarist, concentrated on his instrument. Agnetha Faltskog waved her arms as if in a hippie trance and added her voice to the chorus.
Soon Andersson took the microphone. “I’m really Benny,” he said. “I just look really good for my age.”
The crowd – some 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 painstaking digital re-creations made to look like the group in its 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 spectacle that can be seen in London seven times a week until at least December, with an option to extend until April 2026, when the Abba Arena license expires, and the land is designated for housing.
During the show, the digital avatars – known as Abbatars – performed a series of hits with the help of a 10-piece live band and an array of lights, lasers and special effects. For the Spanish-tinged ‘Chiquitita’, the group sang before a solar eclipse. For the “Summer Night City” stadium disco, it appeared in pyramids made of blinding light, with Saturn’s rings spinning in the background. The avatars also appeared as 30-foot-tall figures on huge screens on the sides of the stage, as if they were being filmed at a real concert. At some point, they started appearing in dozens of places on stage as in a manic music video.
Baillie Walsh, the show’s director, said the event was meant 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 culmination of years of secretive work, protected by hundreds of nondisclosure agreements. That included five weeks of filming the real Abba in motion capture suits in Sweden; four body doubles; endless discussions about the set list; and 140 animators from Industrial Light & Magic (known as ILM), a visual effects company founded by George Lucas that normally works on Hollywood blockbusters.
Svana Gisla and Andersson’s son, Ludvig Andersson, the producers of the event, said in an interview last Friday that they faced a host of issues during the eight years they worked on the show’s development, including challenges to fundraising and malfunctioning toilets.
“It’s been stressful,” Andersson said, looking exhausted and sucking on a mango-flavored vape pen. “But make no mistake,” he added, “nothing is more fun than this.”
The idea started around 2014, Gisla said, when she was brought in to help create music videos for the band using digital avatars, a process that was “a total nightmare,” she said. Around 2016, Simon Fuller, the producer behind the “Idol” franchise and the Spice Girls, proposed a show starring a 3D version of the “singing” group, backed by a live band. (Voller is no longer involved.)
The group had to get creative because Faltskog and Lyngstad had made it clear they “didn’t want to go out,” Andersson told DailyExpertNews in 2021. But the quartet did want to include fresh music on the show, so they secretly got together to work out a few songs, which became more: “Voyage,” Abba’s first new album in four decades, released last year. was released.
The team soon realized that holograms weren’t up to the job; nor were there many other technologies. “We kissed a lot of frogs,” Gisla said. It wasn’t until they met representatives from Industrial Light & Magic that she felt like they had found a company capable of making ‘really compelling digital people’, who ‘run, turn, perform in spotlight’. The key, Ulvaeus said in a video interview, is “for them to connect emotionally with an audience.”
During test shoots in the fall of 2019, the male members of the group jumped in “without scruples,” said Ben Morris, creative director of ILM. (The musicians’ biggest concern? Shaving their beards. “I was afraid what I would find underneath,” Ulvaeus said.) Lyngstad had just had hip surgery and was using a cane. “But we started playing some songs and she slowly slid off the stool, got up and said, ‘Take my cane,'” Morris recalls.
The following spring, the band was filmed by about 200 cameras in Sweden for five weeks, playing their hits repeatedly. British ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor and four body doubles selected from hundreds of hopefuls watched, intending to learn the band’s every move, stance and expression so they could mimic the members, then extend their movements to create the final to develop the show’s choreography.
Steve Aplin, ILM’s motion director for the event, said they went through “literally hundreds” of iterations of each avatar to get them right, as well as modeling clothes designed by stylist B. Akerlund. The hardest to reach was Andersson, he added, because “his personality is the twinkle in his eye.”
While the Abbatars were being developed, the 10-piece band was formed, and Gisla raised funds (the final budget was £140 million, or about $175 million, she said), developing an arena capable of handling any technology. and trying to keep the huge project under control. A moment of potential danger came in December 2019, when the team submitted a planning application to London authorities with the word “Logo” on engineering drawings of the building instead of “Abba”, hoping no one would investigate further. .
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, a project that “thought ridiculous before Covid” became “doubly ridiculous,” Gisla said, as she asked lenders to trust the idea that 3,000 people might want to dance side by side in the near future. Soundproofing materials for the arena nearly got stuck outside Britain when a ship ran aground in the Suez Canal; the wood for the building’s facade was supposed to come from Russia, but was sourced from Germany at a higher cost after Russia invaded Ukraine.
When asked what he’d been through while making the project, Walsh replied, “A nervous breakdown,” then laughed.
Abba Voyage isn’t the only Abba-themed event in London; the long-running “Mamma Mia!” musical in the West End also regularly attracts drunken bachelorette and birthday parties. Gisla said that, like a West End show, Abba Voyage would have to sell about 80 percent of its seats to make a profit. Tickets start at £31, or $38, although few of those cheap seats seem available for the first run. Visitors pay more – starting at $67 – for a spot on a dance floor in front of the stage.
Andersson, the producer, said he clearly hoped that Abba Voyage would be a commercial success – just like the other members of Abba, who are investors – but insisted he was happy that after so much toil, the team just had “something beautiful created”. Ulvaeus said he wouldn’t be surprised if some of the group’s contemporaries consider a similar venture: “Of course, if they ask me for advice, I’d say, ‘It takes a long time and it’s very expensive.'”
At Thursday’s premiere, audiences were split 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 sections people hugged each other for joy to the sound of beloved songs and danced and sang along. The fact that the band onstage wasn’t the flesh-and-blood originals didn’t seem to matter. For ‘Waterloo’ the Abbatars simply introduced a huge video of their Eurovision performance in 1974 and danced their way off stage to the crowd cheering wildly.
Jarvis Cocker of the band Pulp said he was left in “a state of confusion” by the show. “I felt very emotional at certain points during that performance, which I call a performance, but it wasn’t — it was a projection,” he said. He added: “But I don’t know what it means for the future of humanity.” He suggested that avatar shows featuring the Beatles and Elvis Presley wouldn’t be far behind.
The fans outside were too overwhelmed to worry about the show’s implications for the live music industry. Teresa Harle, 55, a postal worker who attended with a friend and ran to the front of the arena to get the best view, said she found the avatars so convincing, she even waved to Faltskog when the show ended.
“It was a once in a lifetime experience,” Harle said, “even though we’ll be back tomorrow and Saturday.”