LONDON — After a 40-year wait, Swedish pop sensations ABBA made their eagerly-anticipated return to the live stage on Thursday. And although none of the real-life musicians were actually onstage performing, all four of them were present in London, making a rare public appearance at the premiere of their virtual live concert ABBA Voyage.
Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog walked the red carpet and received a rapturous standing ovation when they appeared onstage together at the end of the much-hyped show, which features de-aged digital avatar versions of the band – or ABBA-tars, as the show’s producers insist on calling them – and takes place in a new purpose-built 3,000-capacity ABBA Arena in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London.
Billed as a “Concert Like No Other,” the launch was attended by King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden, as well as several music stars and VIPs, including Kylie Minogue, Zara Larsson, Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker, Kate Moss and Keira Knightley.
For lovers of ABBA, who broke up in 1982 and have continually resisted lucrative offers to re-form, ABBA Voyage delivers the type of jaw-dropping greatest hits live show that most fans thought they’d never get the chance to see again.
For the wider live music industry, it represents a fascinating glimpse into a potential future where the world’s biggest acts no longer have to travel or even physically appear onstage to pack concert venues and sell millions of tickets, theoretically extending an act’s touring career well into old age and, if demand allows, beyond death.
The concept is not new and versions of 3D hologram live music shows have been around for several years now: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Whitney Houston, Tupac Shakur and Roy Orbison are among the artists that have been recreated digitally for audiences’ entertainment, with varying degrees of success and believability.
ABBA Voyage represents a seismic leap forward in terms of technology and sheer scale to sit at the cutting edge of what virtual concerts can now deliver. Breaking new ground comes at a high price, however, with the Swedish band reportedly needing to recoup around £140 million ($176 million) to cover production costs (a spokesperson for the production declined to comment on how much the show costs to stage).
Work on the production began in 2016 and went through several different guises as the thinking and technology behind it evolved. Early on, the show was envisaged as a hologram-type event, then a touring concert series, before settling on a London residency.
To create the digital versions of Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Frida, technicians from George Lucas’ special effects company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) spent five weeks inside a Stockholm movie studio filming the four band members – now all in their 70s – performing their back catalog, while wearing figure-hugging motion-capture suits.
There were 160 cameras scanning their bodies, recording their every movement and facial expression, which the designers then used as the basis for the avatars that drive the live show. Body doubles were also used in the motion capture process to give the digital band – represented in their late 1970s prime, complete with glitzy sequined costumes and winged catsuit outfits designed by B Åkerlund and Dolce & Gabbana — a more youthful energy.
More than 1,000 visual-effects artists and one billion computing hours went into making the ABBA-tars as eerily realistic and human-like as possible. During the show, they appear on huge 65-million-pixel screens, often as life-sized versions of their younger selves. At other times, the four musicians are shown in photo-realistic close up on the large screens that loom over the dance floor and surrounding seats.
The boundaries between physical and digital realms are further blurred by a 10-piece live band that energetically performs the group’s hits onstage, merging seamlessly with recordings of Agnetha and Frida’s voices, Bjorn’s guitar and Benny’s piano.
A spectacular light show utilizing 20 lighting rigs and over 500 moving lights add to the visual spectacle, helping create the illusion that you have travelled back in time and the four members of ABBA are there, performing on stage in front of you.
The magic is temporarily broken whenever the avatars address the audience and their pre-recorded words are drowned out by the crowd (rather than pausing and milking the applause as any seasoned real-life performer would instinctively do). But the show moves at such a fast visually stimulating pace that these awkward moments are fleeting and soon forgotten.
There are also playful nods to the digital artifice on display with the four characters routinely joking about how good they look for their age or pretending to struggle to get into their costumes. Two animations by U.K.-based visual artists Shynola effectively act as big-budget intervals between the virtual avatar performances, while the production team – led by Ludvig Andersson, son of Benny, Svana Gisla and director Baillie Walsh — wisely steer clear of making the avatars’ dancing seem too slickly choreographed and synchronized, replicating the quirky homespun charm of the original performers.
“With ABBA Voyage the band have created their own monument which is as brilliant and timeless as their music,” says Frank Briegmann, chairman & CEO Universal Music Central Europe and Deutsche Grammophon.
For now, the concert runs just over 90 minutes with 20 songs, spanning some of ABBA’s biggest hits (“Mamma Mia”, “Thank You For The Music”, “The Winner Takes It All”, “Knowing Me Knowing You”) alongside fan favorite album cuts (“The Visitors,” “Hole In Your Soul,” “When All Is Said And Done”) and two tracks from last year’s comeback album, also called Voyage (“Don’t Shut Me Down” and “I Still Have Faith In You”).
It’s a safe assumption that the set list will change over time with new songs dropped into the production at regular intervals throughout its run to encourage repeat visits. The model behind ABBA Voyage is expressly built to maximize those revenue generating opportunities, with the show booked to run in London for least the next 12 months, hosting between seven and nine gigs a week, including two weekend matinees. (In an interview with Variety earlier this week, Andersson said they had sold around 380,000 tickets so far).
Beyond that, the purpose-built venue — a futuristic-looking steel structure which loosely resembles a 70s spacecraft, houses 291 speakers and has LED lights spelling out the band’s name on its outer skin – has a four-year lease agreement with London council in place, meaning that more than four million people could pass through its doors by the time the show leaves the U.K. in late 2026 (based on full capacity shows running seven times a week).
Where ABBA Voyage goes after that is open to all possibilities with the band’s global popularity – enhanced by the two Mamma Mia feature films, spin off Mamma Mia! The Party dining experience and ongoing popularity of the group’s evergreen catalog – meaning they could theoretically pack up and transport the ABBA Arena, or even operate multiple versions of the same immersive concert experience, anywhere in the world.
“To be or not to be,” wise cracks Benny’s avatar during the show “That is no longer the question.” ABBA Voyage makes those words a reality.