Northern Exposure

Here's a bit of Icelandic trivia: who has the country's fastest-selling record of all time? It's not Sigur Ros or Nylon—two successful pop acts that have broken out in the past several years. Nor is it Bjork, who is by far Iceland's biggest musical export. Give up? The honor goes to a 32-year-old opera singer by the name of Gardar Thor Cortes, who happens to break every stereotype in the classical music book: he's got smoldering good looks—he was voted Iceland's sexiest man twice in one year—and there is nothing stuffy about him. He did, after all, spend a year on the London stage in the title role of "Phantom of the Opera" and counts Bon Jovi and Prince among his favorite acts. "There is a lot of snobbery around classical music that I do not think should be there," Cortes says, lounging in a hip black suit at his record company's office in London's Soho. "Number one is the music and the drama and the passion because that is what really counts."

What counts now for his career is how well his debut album, "Cortes," sells abroad. In Britain at least, where it's being released this month, Cortes has the home-court advantage; his mother is British, and the tenor himself spent a few years at a British boarding school. Audiences got a taste of his classical side last autumn when he toured the country with the popular Welsh soprano Katherine Jenkins. Critics have hailed him as a stunning new talent embodying the "spirit of Pavarotti" with a robust range and heartfelt resonance; Einar Bardarson, the managing director of Cortes's record label, Believer Music Group, thinks Cortes has the goods to become a major crossover star. "We hope he will be one of the pinnacle voices of the early 21st century," he says. "We are looking at him as someone who has a lengthy career ahead of him."

Cortes understands how fickle the music business can be. His parents were both students at the Royal Academy of Music; his mother is a concert pianist and in his prime, his father—who founded the Icelandic Opera, the Reykjavik Academy of Singing and the Reykjavik Symphony Orchestra—was considered a world-class tenor in the same league as Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Cortes's brother and sister are both professional opera singers, but he insists that his parents never pushed them. "I remember watching television one day and saw someone playing the trumpet and I said 'I want to learn that'," he recalls. "I think music was in our blood."

During his teens, Cortes starred in the popular European television series "Nonni and Manni" and though an acting career appealed to him, his musical hankerings won out. He spent several years studying opera—four of them at his father's school—before landing the lead in "Phantom." Though he loved the adrenaline rush of being on stage eight times a week, his true passion was elsewhere. "My heart lies in opera and classical music and I knew that I would not be happy down the line if I did not pursue what I wanted most," he says. So he walked away from a lucrative career in musical theater and went back to school. At the Royal Academy of Music he studied with his sister—and Jenkins. Since then, he has been touring Europe; last month he tried out for a role with the Polish National Opera. But his dream is to sing at London's Royal Opera House, partly because his father used to perform there.

As for the album, there are some highs—and lows. His version of "Hunting High and Low"—a nod to his fellow Scandinavian musicians A Ha—veers toward the sentimental. But "Luna," performed with M People's Heather Small, is a striking, epic song with broad appeal. In the video Cortes stands with waves crashing around him, staring beguilingly into the camera. And perhaps the biggest crowd-pleaser on the album is "Nella Fantasia," a glorious number that highlights his crystal-clear vocals and sultry charisma. As legions of international fans are about to find out, opera can be spellbindingly seductive.