Spotlight on a Tenor @ IMX www.icelandicmusic.is
The Icelandic Classical singing sensation Cortes released his second album ‘When You Say You Love Me’ in June 2008. Cortes’ No 1 selling self-titled debut album was released last year and stayed at the top spot for three weeks. The album received widespread acclaim, including a nomination for the prestigious Album of The Year Award at this year’s Classical Brit Awards. Previous winners of the award include the legendary Sir Paul McCartney, Andrea Bocelli and Katherine Jenkins. Cortes was born into a family of revered and famed performers, his father Garðar Cortes Senior was a world class tenor in his prime in the same realm as Pavarotti and Domingo. He later founded the Icelandic Opera, The Reykjavík Symphony Orchestra and the Reykjavík Academy of Singing. Cortes’ mother Krystyna - a concert pianist - studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music, the school in which Cortes was to later secure a scholarship. Cortes began his career in acting, appearing first in West Side Story, going on to win the lead role of Raoul in Phantom of the Opera performing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s prestigious West End. It was following these performances that Cortes secured his scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London alongside Katherine Jenkins. From there he toured Europe playing lead tenor roles and was signed to Independent label Believer Records. His forthcoming album When You Say You Love Me has been written with the same team that worked on Cortes and is once again a blend of classical music with a uniquely contemporary twist.
You were recently the first Icelander ever to be nominated for a Classical Brit. That must have felt quite special – how do you feel about that?
A true honour. That's all I can say about that really and the truth is that it did not really sink in until I walked the red carpet up to the Royal Albert Hall. I felt like I was a part of something bigger. I can't really explain it. It was just a real honour and such a great event.
The press have been describing you as ‘The James Bond of Classical Music’ and as ‘…combining the Voice Of Pavarotti with the looks of Brad Pitt’ recently. Are these comments flattering or a distraction? Well sometimes, yes. But I don't really understand were Brad Pitt comes into the mix seeing that I don't really look like him at all. But then being compared to Pavarotti is really unfair I think. Nobody is the next Pavarotti. It's like saying here are the next Pyramids. Pavarotti is still in everyone’s hearts the greatest tenor that ever lived. It's a bit difficult living up to people’s expectations when they think they are actually gonna hear something that will fill his gap. But in the end the media is trying to be complimentary saying these things and of course I am thankful for that. They are not saying I am the next flop and look like Mickey Mouse so all good I guess.
The classical world has been undergoing a bit of a mainstream makeover in recent years. Do you think there’s a danger of the classical world succumbing to the image/style-led fixations of the pop world in general? Or is it a good thing that classical music is losing it’s old fashioned and elitist stance?
I am told Classical Music and the Crossover sector specially is the only part of the music industry that is still growing. So I am really proud to be a part of that and enjoy the fact that people are showing more interest in classical music. I am pretty sure Puccini meant for everyone to enjoy his work not an elite few.
Why do you think the first album was such a success now you’ve had some time to reflect on it?
That is very difficult to me to answer that and probably a question for someone else to answer. But what I can say is that the album was a labour of love. Everyone that worked on it poured all they had into it so I guess when you really strive to give your best and everyone around you as well then that's the best one can do.
For the new album, you worked alongside the same team as on ‘Cortes’ – who assembled that team, and who are the main players?
My friend and manager Einar Bárðarson again is the executive producer of this album. He and myself usually assemble the music and this repertoire has been in the making a long time so I hope the audience will be happy with it. There are one or two songs that might be considered lighter than on the first one - then again there are at least 5 arias so there is more weight as well. Regarding the team: our very good friend Friðrik Karlsson was nice enough to produce this album with us like the last one. Simon Strevens was the engineer, we have worked with him before as well; a very good man and VERY patient, which is just too important. Óskar Einarsson arranged some of the music and a new member on the team is Carl Falk from Sweden that wrote and arranged two tracks. I am so happy that these people could work with us, as I believe that the album is just a bit better for that fact.
What was different about making this album?
Well we did have the same team, same studio and again a very good time. But we did take the luxury of not rushing this one. We took our time and I hope it shows on the album. But it was so refreshing to work with new music. I have sort of been recording, promoting and singing the first album for almost three years now, so working on new music was the best part. Like going into a big candy store and just picking everything you want, hahaha!
The album is again a mix of opera favourites, modern pop songs and re-arranged classics. Are you equally at home with all of these genres, or do you reserve a special passion for opera?
My passion first and foremost is the Opera. I feel comfortable doing these styles and people seem to like it. I don't know what they would say if I started rapping but no worries, I have no such plans. All jokes aside, a beautiful melody is a beautiful melody. Be it Puccini, be it Richard Marx what ever moves the heart is well worth singing. Who ever thinks that is not "pure" needs to revisit ones heart and rediscover what makes it tick.
You recorded a song with Natasha Marsh – why did you choose Natasha to work with, and why “The Prayer” in particular?
Natasha is just a true gem. Her voice is just so beautiful. I heard her last album and just thought ‘I need to sing with this singer’. Then we did a concert together and after that became good mates and now I am on her album and she is on mine. Sometimes the big labels like to pair talents with someone just for sake of publicity but I picked her because she simply sounds amazing.
There’s also a lullaby there from Iceland. Is it important to you to promote your heritage, or was it just a nice song to include?
A bit of both. On the last album we picked "Skýið" to finish the album. A stunning ballad originally sung by Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson who just after recording it had a fatal accident. It has some misterious magic surrounding it. Now, Sofðu unga ástin mín is an Icelandic Folk song, (‘Sleep my darling baby, sleep’). The way Friðrik Karlsson has arranged it and produced is beautiful and he has home court advantage.
Which singers, dead or alive, to you revere the most?
My father first and foremost. The three tenors of course, Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras. Names like Wunderlich, Caruso, Björling, Di Stefano and Kraus also spring to mind. The list is endless.
Your first album made it to the top of the classical charts, which you have said you weren’t quite expecting. Are you perhaps more confident about your new album now you have these successes under your belt?
If you ask my manager, I am never confident, but I have finished the album. I love it and I guess it’s all up the public now, and a little bit up to the promotional team.
Icelandic Tenor Gardar Þór (Thor) Cortes on Classic FM: