The ‘Voyage’ live show will see a “digital” version of ABBA performing alongside a 10-piece live band (put together with the help of Klaxons’ James Righton and featuring Little Boots) at the new purpose-built 3,000-capacity ABBA Arena at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in a run of shows from May 27, 2022.
The show has been put together by Svana Gisla (who produced Jay-Z and Beyoncé‘s On the Run Tour), choreographer Wayne McGregor, Johan Renck (who directed David Bowie‘s videos for ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’), Baillie Walsh (who has directed for Massive Attack and Bruce Springsteen) and producer Ludvig Andersson (son of ABBA’s Benny Andersson and producer of And Then We Danced, Yung Lean‘s ‘In My Head’ and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again).
“I worked for many years with Johan Renck,” Svana Gisla told NME. “He’s my partner and we have a company together. We worked with David Bowie before he passed, and we swore that after that we’d never do another music project again.
“Then a few months later, Johan called me up and said, ‘You know that thing you said about never working in music again? Well, how about ABBA?’ If there was one name he could have pulled out of a hat that would have changed my mind, then it would have been them.”
A press conference last week heard how the band will be presented as digital characters of “ABBA in their prime” from 1979, which have been created using performance capture techniques on ABBA in recent years to animate them and make them look “perfectly real”. Using 160 cameras, the band “performed every song to perfection over five weeks” with the technical team “capturing every mannerism, emotion and the soul of their beings” to create something that’s not “a version or a copy of ABBA, but actually them”.
“That was incredible – that moment when we filmed them in Stockholm and you had the four of them in their motion capture leotards,” Baillie Walsh told NME. “They looked quite absurd, but it was ABBA! The four of them walked onto that stage and it was extraordinarily emotional. There’s a chemistry that happens between certain people that when they come together, something magical happens. All we had to do was capture that. They soon got over the silliness of the suits, they performed, and as each day went by they got more relaxed, more into it and more ABBA.”
He continued: “Most days the whole set was in tears, and there were a lot of people on that set. When you hear them play any of their back catalogue, it brings back so many memories for people. ABBA are part of our DNA because we’ve grown up with them. I’m more than a fan. They’re part of who I am. It chokes me up now, just talking about it.”
Ludwig Andersson explained how the show was captured with a mixture of painstaking techniques and the “magic” of the band themselves.
“The foundation of this is the five weeks they spent in the motion capture studio where they performed each song over and over again, and we recorded every moment and all the tiny nuances,” he said. “It was a surreal experience to have these 75-year-old ABBA stars in these suits with nearly 200 people watching.
“You’re so focussed on the job that you sometimes forget that you’re looking at ABBA putting on a performance every day for five weeks. There were moments when everyone just dropped what they were doing because some strange magic happened in the room.
He went on: “We were all reminded of what we were supposed to be doing – which was to capture that. If we succeeded remains to be seen, but we gave it one hell of a shot. ABBA, though, were magnificent in their performance, their vigour and their bravery.”
As well as their movements, the technical team also spent time capturing all of the usual elements that make up a more traditional live performance.
“We don’t want to give all the surprises away because we want everyone to come and enjoy it, but there will be lots of hidden surprises, hopefully a bit of stage banter and 100 minutes of pure ABBA euphoria to be part of in this arena that someone had the brilliant idea of them building in the middle of a pandemic and Brexit,” said Svana.
“People talk about ‘immersive experiences’ a lot, but I don’t think that phrase has ever been truly delivered. I hope that when you stand in that arena, within everything that we’ve created specifically to give you that experience, you’ll go, ‘Ah, that’s what it really means’. The audio, the visuals, everything is 360 and there will just be ABBA in the air.”
Many reports have been referring to ‘Voyage’ as a ‘hologram’ show, but the team behind it are keen to point out that this is far from being the case.
“It’s absolutely not a hologram show, and I think that’s a blessing,” Walsh told NME. “Holograms can be overblown. Once you’ve experienced that, then where do you go? It feels as if someone is there, but too many people rely on the idea that it’s enough. I don’t think it is enough – that’s the failure of the Whitney Houston show and various others who have tried it.
“The fact that we couldn’t do a hologram made us push harder to make this show much better. It’s much more varied, it’s incredibly generous, every song is a different picture, the lighting is going to be extraordinary, the real world and the digital world will meld together.”
He added: “No one can stand or sit there and say, ‘Oh, ABBA weren’t there’. You will think they are there. It’s about that suspension of disbelief. That’s been my job, really – to make it the most enjoyable, believable and acceptable idea that the audience are on stage with ABBA.”
As for the purpose-built ABBA Arena, the team told NME how it was totally necessary in order to create this immersive experience which could not easily be created or built in another arena. As well as boasting “the biggest screens in Europe”, the Arena will also become “the home of ABBA in London” for as long as it’s required.
“We’re not doing holograms and we’re not doing a movie, so if you have a digital performer then you need to think about how you bring that digital performer into the physical space,” Svana explained. “It’s about that third dimension where the digital and the physical meet and the boundaries between those two worlds become that space. That’s what the arena is. It’s in the fabric of the building and you can’t just recreate it anywhere.
“We quickly realised that if we were going to go down this road to bring ABBA back, then it had better be mind-blowing.”
Asked what fans will see when entering the Arena, Ludwig replied: “You will immediately recognise it as a concert. You have a stage, you have a live band, you have ABBA. There will be close-ups of ABBA on the screens. So far, that’s identical to any pop concert of today – the difference is going to be that this whole space has been designed and detailed to cater to the perfect communal musical experience.
“We had to build our own arena to do that. For what we need, you can’t put this up or take it down in a day. We started with ABBA and then the arena exploded outwards like the Big Bang. Hopefully, you will feel that you are in this magical ABBA space circus church. It’s a concert on steroids, basically.”
He added: “However technically advanced these avatars are, this can never only be about technology. Like all music, you need to keep that open highway into your soul. We need to work on that emotion. It needs to always be about the audience feeling something. We’re just trying to enhance that feeling and crank it up to 11 with everything we have at our disposal.”
Tickets for ABBA ‘Voyage’ went on general sale today (September 7), with the website advertising gigs at the London venue from May into October next year. Beyond that, Walsh suggested that the show could run for up to 30 years.
“We have the ability to make changes,” he said. “We’ve recorded other songs so we can introduce them along the way. How long could it go on for? Well, how long has ‘ABBA GOLD’ been in the charts? If we can visually make ABBA’s music come alive and keep changing it, then it has endless possibilities.”
Svana agreed: “I want to say we’ll be there for as long as anyone wants us to be. We don’t have a cut-off point and we want everyone to come and see it. It’s for more than ABBA fans. Anyone who loves music could come, anyone who loves experiencing something new could come. Anyone who wants to have a memorable experience with friends and family could come.”
Asked if the ABBA Arena and ‘Voyage’ experience would likely have residencies in other cities around the world, Ludwig said: “Being a magical space circus, we will sooner or later turn up in your neighbourhood, but it will be a while. It would be an immensely slow tour, if any – but it can travel, so it shall if needs be. For now, we’re in London.”
ABBA’s ‘Voyage’ concerts will run from May 27, 2022, following the accompanying album which will be released on November 5, 2021, on Universal Music.