Stars and Royalty Witness ABBA’s Return in Digital Show

LONDON (AP) — “ABBA Voyage” is definitely a journey.

Four decades after the Swedish pop supergroup last performed live, audiences can once again see ABBA on stage in an innovative digital concert where past and future collide.

The show opens to the public in London on Friday, the day after a red carpet premiere attended by superfans, celebrities and Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia. The guests of honor were pop royalty – all four members of ABBA, appearing together in public for the first time in years.

They were, however, in the audience. On stage at the purpose-built 3,000-seat ABBA Arena next to East London’s Olympic Park were a 10-piece live backing band and a digital ABBA, created using capture motion and other technologies by Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects company founded by director George Lucas’ “Star Wars.”

The voices and movements are the real Agnetha Faltskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad – choreographed by Briton Wayne McGregor – but the performers on stage are digital avatars, inevitably nicknamed “ABBA-tars”. In disturbingly realistic detail, they portray the band members as they were in their prime in the 1970s – beards on the men, flowing locks on the women, velvet pants all around.

The result is equal parts high tech and high camp, a scintillating supernova of staggering technology, 1970s nostalgia and pop music genius.

For many viewers, it was almost like stepping back in time to watch ABBA perform classics such as “Mamma Mia”, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, “SOS” and “Dancing Queen”. The energetic 90-minute set also includes tracks from “Voyage,” the reunion album the band released last year.

It’s a fusion of tribute act and 3D concert film that transcends that description. Sometimes it was possible to forget that it wasn’t a live performance, but when the backing singers came forward to sing “Does Your Mother Know”, a wave of live music energy went through the arena.

The four members of the band – two couples married during ABBA’s heyday, though now long divorced – were given an enthusiastic standing ovation when they bowed out at the end of Thursday’s show, 50 years after forming ABBA and 40 years after ceasing to perform live.

Watching his youngest perform must be a strange feeling, but the band members, who are now in their 70s, said they were delighted with the show.

“I didn’t know I had such amazing moves,” Ulvaeus said.

Lyngstad agreed: “I thought I was good enough, but I’m even better.”

Ulvaeus said the audience reaction was the most rewarding part of the experience.

“There is an emotional connection between avatars and audiences,” he said. “That’s the fantastic thing.”

The producers call the show “groundbreaking”. Time will tell us. Like the first viewers to watch a talking film a century ago, attendees may walk away wondering if they’re watching a gimmick or the future.

Times of London reviewer Will Hodgkinson deemed the show “essentially an ABBA in accompaniment with an additional sound and light show”, although he called the effect “engrossing”. Writing in The Guardian, Alexis Petridis called the concert “stunning” and said “it’s such a success that it’s hard not to imagine other artists following suit”.

Gimmick or genius, “ABBA Voyage” books in London until May 2023, with a world tour scheduled after that.

Fans who attended Thursday’s show are just thrilled that ABBA is back.

“I’m so excited,” said Kristina Hagman, a Swede who has been a fan since the 1970s.

“I was so bullied because you weren’t allowed to like ABBA back then, because it was so commercial,” she said. “But now we are taking revenge.”

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