Jul 30, 2023

ABBA Voyage Takes Us to the Future of Live Entertainment

Post by 
Heather Gallagher

It’s a steamy Monday night in London. I’m on an Overground Train heading outside of Zone 1 to Stratford and then onto Pudding Mill Lane. I’m wearing a one-shouldered purple metallic party dress and my tall black combat boots. This is relatively normal attire for me, but not the usual commuter wear for most Londoners heading home after a day's work, nor the kind of outfit one might expect to see in a place called Pudding Mill Lane.

A woman wearing a sequin dress gets on the train a few stops down the line, and then another after a few more stops. Soon I see a group of women wearing tinsel wigs. OK London, that’s the spirit. Make me proud of your participation and willingness to party on a Monday night. I’m not sure what is going to happen tonight, but I know every show is better when the audience adds to the experience instead of just being a consumer of it.

We were heading towards ABBA Voyage. A much-lauded immersive concert experience that made a splash on the world stage when it opened in May of 2022. I was so busy working that I barely recalled hearing rumors of some sort of hologram concert. Having worked in augmented reality and generally being a creative technology and spectacle geek, I knew I had to investigate once it came across my radar again on a trip to London.

The ticket said 7:30 and that doors opened an hour and 45 minutes ahead of time. It was unclear if the 7:30 was doors or the show. Turned out it was the show and I had to hustle if I didn’t want to miss anything. So I hustled, as did thousands of excited and sometimes sequin-clad guests streaming toward the custom-built ABBA Arena. The arena was built by London’s Stufish Entertainment Architects at the cost of $175M, making ABBA Voyage one of the most expensive live-performance shows ever. The whole arena breaks down into a kind of flat pack for future touring, but tonight it was in full force with the band’s logo illuminated across the top of the entrance.

ABBA Arena in Pudding Mill Lane, London, UK, designed by Stufish Entertainment Architects. Photo: Heather Gallagher

I had just enough time to quickly consume two sparkling rosés in the vast lobby built by Stage One. Designed to be configurable to adapt to new layouts in future locations, it has LED tube geometric patterns and a shifting rainbow of light effects across the ceiling. From this concourse, I headed to the main performance hall through a series of tunnels lined with more shifting LED tubes until I eventually emerged onto the dance floor.

Interior lobby of ABBA Arena, built by Stage One. Photo: Heather Gallagher

Two massive sheer curtains hung at the front of the stage and I presumed those would become the main device for some sort of holographic projection show. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What unfolded over the evening was astonishing, beautiful, moving, and grooving, and felt like a trip into the future. Guests are not allowed to take photos inside the theatre once the show starts and to be honest, I was glad to witness ABBA Voyage without the distraction of a screen or trying to capture something that was almost impossible to believe I was seeing, hearing, and experiencing.

What came to life was a phenomenal 90-minute concert, featuring the members of the band ABBA, Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, looking as if they had stepped right out of a photo of their younger selves from the 70s, singing in their renowned voices, dancing and interacting in realistic performances showcased with the best-of-class concert production. I met someone later who told me they had seen the show three times already and it was one of their top five concert experiences of all time. I can see why. I think it’s in my top ten for sure. I’m pretty sure many of the 3000 attendees who were dancing, screaming, and singing along to every word would also agree. We were all ‘in it’, and feeling it together.

"ABBAtars" of Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and Björn Ulvaeus. Photo: ABBA Voyage

We were also literally ‘in it’ as the arena has an array of curved digital display screens which wrap the audience inside the light show and effects. At moments strings of LED lights would come down from the ceiling and extend the effects from the stage right into the crowd. The band was indeed shown at times on those screens I saw at first, much like you would see at any rock concert before the curtains go up, but via additional hidden screens behind, the band also appeared to be on the stage at a human scale with convincing lighting effects and performances.

You may be wondering, how does this qualify as a live performance? Well, there was a live ten-piece band and backup singers. The digital “ABBAtars” appeared to convincingly interact with the live band. Sometimes the ABBAtars represented vintage ABBA from 1979, and midway through in a moment of self-referential humor, they changed costumes to look like they were in a TRON-inspired future. It took some proper technological and stage-directing genius to blend the real and digital world performances and effects across dimensions of technology, time, and space. The show was so believable that I often stopped trying to figure out what was going on and just enjoyed the spectacle.

Since then, I’ve researched more about the making of the show. For starters, the ABBAtars are not holograms. They are 3D avatars generated from motion capture performances. The band members, who are now in their 70s, spent five weeks solid performing while wrapped in wacky motion capture suits and surrounded by hundreds of cameras and sensors to capture their authentic expression while performing their legendary music.

Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and Björn Ulvaeus in motion tracking suits. Photo: Rolling Stone

Animation teams at Industrial Light and Magic took the performance data and crafted avatars based on the band at their ‘prime’ back in the 70s. From my spot near the back center of the dance floor, the animation was pristine and realistic. If this is the kind of party we will have in the “uncanny valley”, I will be at that party. Or, maybe I’ll just send my avatar to it?

Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want my insights to potentially skew your own experience of the show.

The few pieces of tiny feedback I would give to the animators are details that would likely never be noticed by most of the viewing audience. One is that the ABBAtar hair is a little too perfect. Each could use a few more flyaway wisps and strands in places to break up some areas that are too smooth. Their hair should also get a little bit messier and tussled as the show goes on. The end of Agnetha’s ponytail in the futuristic scenes needed more angles versus a flat bottom. They may be aiming for a futuristic updo with some sort of blunt cut, but it’s distracting and unrealistic. I am literally picking hairs on the animation because it was that good.

Futuristic "ABBAtars" from ABBA Voyage. Photo: ABBA Voyage

Every once in a while I wanted the band to shimmy and groove more at the hips. If you watch their original videos and live concerts, and any live performers, they can’t help but enthusiastically dance and sway to their own songs. Though, given they captured the real performances of the group today, that might be as much groove as they could muster in their 70s.

ABBA Voyage is more than a comeback concert. It opens the door to a profound contemplation about the future of entertainment. Older acts from history may be long gone. For groups who are still alive, or who were popular in the past 50 years for whom there are libraries of photos, videos, and concert footage, will we be able to relive moments with them forever? Even after they are physically gone?

Do our favorite music acts need to go on grueling tours around the world, or can they ‘phone it in’ in the future? Will every act at the height of their career now capture a digitized performance of themselves to save for future release and to leave a legacy of perpetual youth? Will we care if it’s really the band performing live, or will it be enough to have a placebo concert experience knowing their DNA runs through the show? Will animation houses become the new musical overlords, with the power to recreate performances in 2D and 3D at their fingertips?

Admittedly I was already an ABBA fan, familiar with at least their most famous hits. I’ve been rewatching old videos and hearing their songs in my head ever since the show. It doesn’t matter if you are a big ABBA fan or not. ABBA Voyage is a vanguard moment in the history of live musical performances, and the execution of this concept and the concert is something that everyone should see.

When I can, I’ll see the show again. In London, or rumor has it that the show is going on tour. I’ll be there…. Even if the band is not.