Abba returns to the stage in London. Kind of.
LONDON — Ecstatic cheers bounced around a purpose-built 3,000-seat hexagonal arena on Thursday night as members of Abba — one of pop music’s giants — slowly emerged from under the stage, their classic hairstyles 70s leading the way, to play their first gig in over 40 years.
As a synthesizer blared and lights pulsed, singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad swirled her arms skyward, revealing a huge cape decorated with gold and fiery red feathers, while singing the slow-burning disco of ” The Visitors”. Benny Andersson, posed in front of his synth, smiles as if he cannot believe that he is on stage again. Bjorn Ulvaeus, the band’s guitarist, concentrated on his instrument. Agnetha Faltskog waved her arms like in a hippie trance, adding her voice to the chorus.
Soon, Andersson took the mic. “I really am Benny,” he said. “I just look great for my age.”
The audience – some already out of their dancing seats, glasses of prosecco rosé in hand – laughed because the commentary went straight to the heart of the event. Abba’s members on stage were not real; they were meticulous digital recreations crafted to look like the group at their peak in 1979. 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 show which takes place in London seven times a week until at least December, with the potential for an extension until April 2026, when clearance for the Abba Arena will expire, with the land designated for housing.
During the show, digital avatars – known as Abbatars – performed a series of hits with the help of a 10-piece band and an array of lights, lasers and special effects. For the Spanish-tinged “Chiquitita,” the band sang in front of a solar eclipse. For the “Summer Night City” stadium disco, he appeared in pyramids made of dazzling light, with Saturn’s rings twirling in the background. The avatars also appeared as 30-foot-tall figures on huge screens at the sides of the stage, as if filmed at a real concert. At times, they started popping up in dozens of places on stage like in a manic music video.
Baillie Walsh, the show’s director, said the event was meant to be “sensory overload”.
The project, which Walsh says has taken digital concerts beyond headline-grabbing hologram performances in the past, is the result of years of secret work, protected by hundreds of agreements of non-disclosure. This included five weeks of filming the real Abba in motion capture costume in Sweden; four double bodies; endless debates over 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 had faced a host of problems during the eight years they worked to develop the show, including fundraising challenges 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 has been more enjoyable than that.”
The idea began around 2014, Gisla said, when she was brought in to help make music videos for the band involving 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, suggested a show featuring a 3-D version of the band “singing” while backed by a live band. (Fuller is no longer involved.)
The band had to get creative because Faltskog and Lyngstad had made it clear they “didn’t want to go on the road,” Andersson told The New York Times in 2021. But the quartet wanted to include fresh music in the show, so he got together in secret to craft a few songs, which became something more: “Voyage,” Abba’s first new album in four decades, released last year.
The team soon realized that the holograms weren’t up to snuff; neither do a host of other technologies. “We kissed a lot of frogs,” Gisla said. It wasn’t until they met with representatives from Industrial Light & Magic that she felt they had found a company that could create “truly compelling digital humans” who could “run, spin, play under projectors”. 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 “thrown themselves in without qualms,” said Ben Morris, creative director of ILM. (Musicians’ biggest concern? Shaving their beards. “I was afraid of what I would find underneath,” Ulvaeus said.) Lyngstad had just had hip surgery and was using a cane. “But we started playing a few songs and she slowly slid off the stool, got up and said, ‘Take my stick away,'” Morris recalled.
The following spring, the band was filmed for five weeks by around 200 cameras in Sweden, as they repeatedly played their hits. British ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor and four doubles selected from hundreds of hopefuls watched, with the intention of learning every movement, position and expression of the group so they could imitate its members, then expand their movements to develop the final choreography of the show.
Steve Aplin, ILM’s motion director for the event, said they went through “literally hundreds” of iterations of each avatar to pull them off, and also modeled clothes designed by stylist B. Akerlund. Hardest to reach was Andersson, he added, because “his personality is the twinkle in his eyes”.
While the Abbatars were in development, the 10-piece band was being formed and Gisla was fundraising (the final budget was 140 million pounds, or about $175 million, she said) , developing an arena capable of handling all the technology and trying to keep the massive project a secret. A moment of potential danger came in December 2019, when the team submitted a planning application to the London authorities which featured the word “Logo” on the technical drawings of the building instead of “Abba”, in the hope that no one wouldn’t investigate further.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, a project that “already looked ridiculous before Covid” became “doubly ridiculous”, Gisla said, as she asked backers to trust the idea that 3,000 people would want to dance next to each other in the near future. Materials for the soundproofing of the arena nearly got stuck outside Britain when a ship got stuck in the Suez Canal; the timber for the building’s facade was to have come from Russia, but was purchased from Germany at increased cost after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Asked what he had been through while making the project, Walsh replied, “A nervous breakdown,” then laughed.
Abba Voyage isn’t the only Abba-themed event in London; along “Mamma Mia!” the West End musical also regularly attracts bachelorette parties and birthday parties. Gisla said that, like a West End show, Abba Voyage would have to sell around 80% of its seats to make a profit. Tickets start at £31, or $38, although few of those cheap seats appear to be available for the first race. Attendees pay more — starting at $67 — for a spot 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 he insisted he was happy the team simply “created something beautiful” after so much work. Ulvaeus said he wouldn’t be surprised if some of the band’s contemporaries were considering a similar venture: “If they ask me for advice, of course I would tell them, ‘It’s very time-consuming and very expensive.’ “
At Thursday’s premiere, the audience was split between celebrity guests in the stands (including the King and Queen of Sweden) and members of Abba’s fan club on the dance floor, but in both sections the people hugged with joy to 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 presented a huge video of their 1974 Eurovision performance and danced offstage to wild applause from the crowd.
Jarvis Cocker of the band Pulp said he was left in “a state of confusion” by the show. “I felt very emotional at 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 this means for the future of humanity.” He suggested avatar shows featuring the Beatles and Elvis Presley would not be far behind.
Fans outside were too overwhelmed to worry about the show’s implications for the live music industry. Teresa Harle, 55, a postwoman who attended with a friend and raced past the arena for the best view, said she found the avatars so compelling she even waved at Faltskog at the end a spectacle.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Harle said, “even though we’re coming back tomorrow and Saturday.”