Abba Returns to the Stage in London. Sort Of.
LONDON — Ecstatic cheers bounced round a specifically constructed 3,000-capacity hexagonal enviornment Thursday night time as the members of Abba — considered one of pop music’s behemoths — slowly emerged from beneath the stage, their traditional ’70s hairstyles main the means, to play their first live performance in over 40 years.
As a synthesizer blared and lights pulsed, the singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad twirled her arms skyward, unveiling an enormous cape adorned with gold and fireplace pink feathers, whereas she sang the slow-burn disco of “The Visitors.” Benny Andersson, poised at his synth, grinned like he couldn’t consider he was onstage once more. Bjorn Ulvaeus, the band’s guitarist, centered on his instrument. Agnetha Faltskog swirled her arms as if in a hippie trance, including her voice to the refrain.
Soon, Andersson took the mic. “I’m really Benny,” he mentioned. “I just look very good for my age.”
The viewers — some already out of their seats dancing, glasses of rosé prosecco in hand — laughed as a result of the remark went straight to the coronary heart of the occasion. The members of Abba onstage weren’t actual; they have been meticulous digital re-creations made to appear like the group in its 1979 heyday. The actual Abba — whose members are all a minimum of 72 years outdated — was watching from the stands.
Thursday’s live performance was the world premiere of Abba Voyage, a 90-minute spectacular that runs in London seven occasions every week till a minimum of December, with potential to prolong till April 2026, when the permission for the Abba Arena expires, with the land being designated for housing.
During the present, the digital avatars — often known as Abbatars — carried out a set of hits with the assist of a 10-piece dwell band and an array of lights, lasers and particular results. For the Spanish-tinged “Chiquitita,” the group sang in entrance of a photo voltaic eclipse. For the stadium disco of “Summer Night City,” it appeared in pyramids product of dazzling mild, with the rings of Saturn twirling in the background. The avatars additionally appeared as 30-foot-tall figures on large screens at the sides of the stage, as if being filmed at an actual live performance. At factors, they began showing in dozens of locations onstage as if in a manic music video.
Baillie Walsh, the present’s director, mentioned the occasion was meant to be “a sensory overload.”
The project, which Walsh mentioned pushed digital concert events past the hologram performances which have made headlines in the previous, is the results of years of secretive work, protected by a whole lot of nondisclosure agreements. That included 5 weeks filming the actual Abba in movement seize fits in Sweden; 4 physique doubles; limitless debates over the set record; and 140 animators from Industrial Light & Magic (often known as I.L.M.), a visible results agency based by George Lucas that usually works on Hollywood blockbusters.
Svana Gisla and Andersson’s son Ludvig Andersson, the occasion’s producers, mentioned in an interview final Friday that that they had to take care of a number of issues throughout the eight years they labored to develop the present, together with fund-raising challenges and malfunctioning bogs.
“It’s been stressful,” Andersson mentioned, wanting exhausted and sucking a mango-flavored vape pen. “But, make no mistake,” he added, “nothing has been more enjoyable than this.”
The thought began round 2014, Gisla mentioned, when she was introduced in to assist make music movies for the band involving digital avatars, a course of that was “a total nightmare,” she mentioned. Around 2016, Simon Fuller, the producer behind the “Idol” franchise and the Spice Girls, prompt a present starring a 3-D model of the group “singing” whereas backed by a dwell band. (Fuller is now not concerned.)
The group wanted to get artistic as a result of Faltskog and Lyngstad had made it clear that they didn’t “want to go on the road,” Andersson informed The New York Times in 2021. But the quartet did need to embrace recent music in the present, so it reunited in secret to work up a couple of songs, which grew to become one thing extra: “Voyage,” Abba’s first new album in 4 a long time, launched final year.
The staff rapidly realized that holograms weren’t up to scratch; nor have been a number of different applied sciences. “We kissed a lot of frogs,” Gisla mentioned. It was solely after they met representatives of Industrial Light & Magic that she felt that they had discovered a company able to making “really convincing digital humans,” who could possibly be “running, spinning, performing in floodlights.” The key, Ulvaeus mentioned in a video interview, is “for them to emotionally connect with an audience.”
During take a look at shoots in fall 2019, the group’s male members “leapt in with no qualms,” Ben Morris, I.L.M.’s artistic director, mentioned. (The musicians’ largest concern? Shaving off their beards. “I was scared what I would find underneath,” Ulvaeus mentioned.) Lyngstad had simply had hip surgical procedure and was utilizing a cane. “But we started playing some songs and she slowly slid off the stool, stood up and said, ‘Take my stick away,’” Morris recalled.
The following spring, the band was filmed for 5 weeks by about 200 cameras in Sweden, because it repeatedly performed its hits. The British ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor and 4 physique doubles chosen from a whole lot of hopefuls seemed on, with the intention of studying the band’s each motion, stance and expression so they might mimic its members, then prolong their actions to develop the present’s last choreography.
Steve Aplin, I.L.M.’s movement director for the occasion, mentioned they went via “literally hundreds” of iterations of every avatar to get them proper, and in addition modeled garments designed by the stylist B. Akerlund. The hardest to obtain was Andersson, he added, since “his personality is the twinkle in his eye.”
While the Abbatars have been being developed, the 10-piece band was being fashioned and Gisla was fund-raising (the last price range was 140 million kilos, or about $175 million, she mentioned), creating an enviornment able to dealing with all the technology and attempting to hold the huge project beneath wraps. A second of potential jeopardy got here in December 2019, when the staff submitted a planning application to the London authorities that had the phrase “Logo” on technical drawings of the constructing as an alternative of “Abba,” in the hope nobody would examine additional.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, a project that “already seemed ludicrous before Covid” grew to become “doubly ludicrous” Gisla mentioned, since she was asking backers to belief the concept that 3,000 individuals would need to dance subsequent to one another in the close to future. Materials for the enviornment’s sound insulation virtually bought caught outdoors Britain when a ship jammed in the Suez Canal; the wooden for the constructing’s facade was meant to come from Russia, however was sourced from Germany at elevated expense after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Asked what he had gone via whereas making the project, Walsh replied, “A nervous breakdown,” then laughed.
Abba Voyage isn’t the solely Abba-themed occasion in London; the long-running “Mamma Mia!” musical in the West End additionally often attracts boozy bachelorette and birthday events. Gisla mentioned that like a West End present, Abba Voyage would have to promote about 80 % of its seats to make a revenue. Tickets begin at £31, or $38, though few of these low-cost seats seem accessible for the preliminary run. Attendees pay extra — beginning at $67 — for a spot on a dance ground in entrance of the stage.
Andersson, the producer, mentioned he clearly hoped Abba Voyage can be a industrial success — as do the members of Abba, who’re buyers — however he insisted he was completely satisfied the staff had merely “created something beautiful” after a lot toil. Ulvaeus mentioned he wouldn’t be shocked if a few of the group’s contemporaries contemplate the same enterprise: “If they ask me for advice, of course, I would say, ‘It takes a long time and it’s very expensive.’”
At Thursday’s premiere, the viewers was break up between invited celebrities in the stands (together with Sweden’s king and queen) and members of Abba’s fan membership on the dance ground, but in each sections individuals hugged in pleasure at the sound of beloved songs, and danced and sang alongside. The indisputable fact that the band onstage wasn’t the flesh-and-blood originals didn’t appear to matter. For “Waterloo,” the Abbatars merely launched a huge video of their 1974 Eurovision performance and danced their means offstage as the crowd cheered wildly.
Jarvis Cocker of the band Pulp mentioned he had been left in “a state of confusion” by the present. “I felt very emotional at certain times during that performance, which I’m calling a performance but it wasn’t — it was a projection,” he mentioned. He added, “But I don’t know what it means for the future of mankind.” He prompt avatar reveals that includes the Beatles and Elvis Presley wouldn’t be far behind.
The followers outdoors have been too overwhelmed to fear about the present’s implications for the dwell music trade. Teresa Harle, 55, a postal employee who attended with a buddy and ran to the entrance of the enviornment to get the greatest view, mentioned she discovered the avatars so convincing, she even waved at Faltskog when the present ended.
“It was a once in a lifetime experience,” Harle mentioned, “even though we’re coming again tomorrow, and Saturday.”