When Gus Farwell was a Sun Devil theater major, he slid into ASU Gammage through the loading docks and daydreamed about headlining a sold-out show at the venue.
At 1 p.m. Wednesday, April 15, his dream will somewhat come true when he performs through ASU Gammage’s Facebook page after receiving worldwide acclaim for his seventh-floor balcony concerts in Barcelona. Farwell will join ASU Gammage Executive Director, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, for an interview about life, art and creating happiness through the arts during this time.
“I’m really excited about it,” he says. “I hope, one day, to go there and do a concert at Gammage for all the ASU fans and everybody of Arizona. Hopefully that happens.”
The Farwell family’s videos of the former ASU quarterback/opera singer serenading his neighbors have reached millions of people worldwide.
“It started on the first night of the quarantine,” says Farwell, who has two daughters, Devon and Avalon, with his wife, Claire. “Everybody came out on their balconies and gave this huge round of applause for all the medical workers. This was going on for 5 minutes. Then this ambulance came by. It was this really emotional moment.
“I just got caught up in the moment and, being a singer, I was overcome with emotion and the song came out. I sang the last couple of notes from the big aria that Pavarotti does, ‘Nessun Dorma.’ Everybody cheered and it was this great moment. I didn’t think much of it.”
The next day, Claire, came up with the idea of performing each night to entertain the masses who are quarantined due to coronavirus.
“I was really unsure of how my neighbors would respond to it,” he says. “I was quite nervous the first few nights—‘Do people really want this?’ ‘Do they care?’ ‘Do they want to hear opera?’ Over time, I realized the answer to that question as yes, they do like it.
“I sang on that second night a little bit of ‘O Sole Mio.’ All of a sudden, they cheered (and wanted more). I was completely unprepared for that. I didn’t know what to do or what to sing. I just winged it and sang a little bit of another song.”
Halfway through the song, his neighbors shouted ‘fiesta’ and everybody cheered. A DJ who lives around the corner from Farwell took over and started spinning.
On the fourth night, Avalon took the video from the balcony and Claire posted it. Farwell was against the post, but it went viral.
“The fourth night I brought a speaker out on the balcony and put it between my legs to add music,” he says. “I didn’t want to just sing a cappella. I had a backing track. These singing conditions would normally be a nightmare to any classical singer.
“It’s outside. There’s zero acoustics and I’m singing along to a prerecorded backing track. In classical music, the orchestra follows you, not the other way around. That’s why the conductor’s there, to follow you. It’s far from ideal. To be listening to it from a little speaker between my legs doesn’t help. But who cares? That’s the beauty of the whole thing. It’s not a professional concert. I’m just some guy with a speaker between his legs singing to his neighbors. That’s why the attention it’s received globally is overwhelming.”
Sun Devil forever
As a theater major, Farwell attended ASU from the fall of 1995 to the fall of 1997. He didn’t realize singing was “my thing.” He performed musicals at Los Gatos High School in Northern California, but it took a party for Farwell to realize opera was in his future.
“I had attended a party in high school, and, in a nutshell, the parents’ CDs came on the six-disc changer,” he says. “It was Luciano Pavarotti’s greatest hits. The room melted away from me. It went completely black. I was lost in the music.
“When I came out of it, I said, ‘What is this music?’ I had never heard opera before. I asked to borrow the CD and it’s still in my possession to this day.”
In high school and college, Farwell drove around with the CD in his vehicle singing along with the tracks—he knew them as “tracks” not “arias.”
“I didn’t know what they were called,” he says. “I didn’t know the stories. I couldn’t understand the words. I just loved the sound of it.
“I just mimicked what Pavarotti was doing—or tried to at least. Years later, when I worked with my first professional coach, he said I was probably lucky I did it that way because there can be a lot of poor teachers out there.”
In Tempe, he started living at the dorms and then moved into a house with fellow quarterback Jake Plummer and linebacker Chris Finn.
“There were two seniors and a sophomore. I was the sophomore,” he says with a laugh. “That was a fun house. That whole year was fun. We had an incredible season in ’96. We went undefeated and went to the Rose Bowl but came up shy of a national championship. It was an incredible group to be a part of.
“Pat Tillman was a good friend of mine. I’d love to go back and visit. I haven’t been back since we moved to Europe. Come hell or high water, I’m getting back this fall.”
Since ASU, Farwell has performed at Celebrity Fight Night in Phoenix and venues in Los Angeles to much acclaim.
“Tom Hanks came up to me in the middle of the encore,” he says about Fight Night. “He grabbed the flowers from the centerpiece of his table and threw tulips one by one.
“I’ve had Placido Domingo come to my concert in L.A. a few years ago. He said I belonged in the opera house. It’s been this long, interesting road for sure, with some incredible highs and real lows.”
Farwell and his family moved to Barcelona in October 2016 because he was fed up with the music business and he wanted to study at the Conservatori Superior de Musica del Liceu, which is part of the Liceu Opera House. The city has meaning to the Farwells. Eighteen years ago, he met England-born Claire at a Barcelona nightclub. She encouraged him to sing.
“She said this isn’t a party trick or gimmick,” he recalls. “The reality is, I’ve been promised (success) quite a few times by some very influential people, but unfortunately things just haven’t panned out for whatever reason.”
He calls his age a problem.
“I’m old for someone who’s supposed to be starting out in this career,” Farwell says. “Most of those starting out are in their late 20s, early 30s. I’m 43.
“A lot of things I would normally do or apply to do are unavailable to me. I’m beyond the age limit. I find myself in this strange spot of looking for opportunities for ‘young singers.’ I’m not ‘young.’ I’m new, but I’m not young. It’s a strange place to be.”
He found an all-ages Italian competition, but it turned out to be a money-making sham. So, he stopped singing. The pandemic encouraged him to try again.
“You couldn’t write a better story,” Farwell says. “It’s such a case of the truth is so much stranger than fiction. You wouldn’t believe it if somebody wrote it. There’s an amazing sense of community that exists here. It really feels like a community, which can be rare in a city. We’re all in this together—not just Barcelona, but Europe, and the rest of the world. America heard this and we’re realizing what it means to be a global community.”
On Twitter: @GusFarwell