Antonio Cortis was a tenor with a Caruso-like lyric voice capable of taking on the major dramatic roles. He had excellent technique, the true thrilling tenor "ring," and a rich lyrical line. His voice was so Caruso-like, in fact, when he sang Beppe's offstage serenade in Pagliacci at Buenos Aires in 1916 the audience assumed it was Caruso (who was the Canio in that performance). The great Italian was happy to set the record straight and let his younger colleague receive his due accolades and thereafter treated Cortis as a protégé, not complaining when the press began calling the slim Spaniard "Il piccolo Caruso." By 1921 (the year of Caruso's death) Cortis had graduated from the comprimario roles to the leading parts, and embarked on a highly successful decade of opera, recitals, and recording.
He had come to the opera by a traditional route: He sang in the children's chorus at the Teatro Real in Madrid, joined the adult chorus in 1911, and worked his way into minor roles. As a youngster he was violin player. When his career flowered, his had his greatest successes in the Chicago Opera (appearing there every year from 1924 to 1932) and was also highly popular in San Francisco. He made his Covent Garden debut in 1931 as Calaf in Puccini's Turandot. Influential critic Ernest Newman singled out his performance of the great aria "Nessun dorma" as being unusually pure and dramatically apt for being sung as a nocturne "without any of the gallery-catching vulgarities of vocal display that generally disfigure it." Cortis, by all accounts, was either unschooled in or rejected acting tricks. His lack of posturing in his roles made his portrayals seem more natural.
The worldwide economic disaster of the early 1930s impacted his career dramatically. The Covent Garden debut of 1931 was so successful that he would have been reengaged for that company's Italian season 1932, but that had to be canceled for financial reasons. The Chicago Civic Opera was also hit. He returned to Italy, then withdrew to Spain in 1935. The Spanish Civil War broke out, then World War II, and he had no opportunity to reignite his international career. Even his recordings disappeared, not to be revived until the compact disc era decades after his death. He sang on in Spain, making his last stage appearance in May 1951, as Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca.