Born in Hiitola, Finland (now in the Republic of Karelia), the eighth of ten children he studied in Lahti and Stockholm, and made his operatic debut in Helsinki in 1960 as Sparafucile. He trained as a boxer in his youth and developed the stamina necessary for the biggest roles. Originally Talvela was educated as a primary school teacher in Savonlinna, Eastern Finland (1952–1956), and he worked in that occupation at three schools (1957–1960). He sang at the Stockholm Royal Opera in Sweden from 1961 to 1962, before becoming a regularly employed singer at the Deutsche Oper (German Opera) of Berlin in 1962, the same year as his debut at Bayreuth.
In 1970, the Senate (government) of West Berlin formally granted him the rank of Kammersänger. At New York's Metropolitan Opera, he performed the role of Boris Godunov 39 times between 1974 and 1987. He was especially acclaimed as the title character in Boris Godunov and as Pimen from the same work, as Paavo Ruotsalainen in The Last Temptations, as a Wagner singer who frequently performed at Bayreuth (King Marke, Hunding, Fasolt, Fafner, Hagen (one critic described his Hagen as an "elemental force") and Titurel), as the Commendatore, Sarastro, Dosefei, and Prince Gremin, as King Phillip II, the Grand Inquisitor and, in the later part of his career, the title character in Glinka's Ivan Susanin. As his final record he left, terribly thinned out by illness, a warm and heartfelt version of Schubert's Winterreise. He also left at least two recorded performances of Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death – one with full orchestra and one with piano accompaniment.
Talvela possessed a "voice of immense size and wide range" and was able to bring to his roles a combination of both "grandeur and gentleness". A large man, 6' 7" tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds, he was a fine vocal actor who brought an air of dignity to his roles, even to pure-evil roles like Hagen and the Grand Inquisitor.
He can be seen performing on video as Boris Godunov, as Sarastro, as Osmin, as the Grand Inquisitor (in German) and as Don Fernando, and in the CBS special Beethoven's Birthday: A Celebration in Vienna, released on DVD as Bernstein on Beethoven: A Celebration in Vienna.
Talvela was the first artistic leader of the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland, from 1972 to 1979, and had been appointed general director of the National Opera in Helsinki just before his death.
During the last eight years of his life (1981 to 1989), he worked as a farmer on the Inkilänhovi (Inkilä Court) farm in Juva, Eastern Finland, while continuing his official career as an opera singer. His health had begun to decline in 1975, when he was diagnosed with diabetes and gout. In 1982 alone, he suffered two heart attacks at the Metropolitan Opera. Stomach problems also plagued him at times in the 1980s.
Talvela died at age 54 while dancing at his daughter's wedding in Juva.
- Martti Talvela, 54, Imposing Bass Regarded as Peerless in 'Godunov' : obituary in New York Times, 24 June 1989, accessed 7 June 2014
- Loppert, Max. Martti Talvela. In: The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Macmillan, London and New York, 1997.
- Pekka Hako, Unohtumaton Martti Talvela: Elämäkerta. [The Unforgettable Martti Talvela: A Biography.] Helsinki: Ajatus Kirjat, 2004, pp. 373–376.
- Modest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bare Mountain, Songs and Dances of Death, BIS CD-325 Stereo
- Martti Talvela Lied Album, Decca 430 070-2
- http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Talvela-Martti.htm Short Biography with pictures
- Hako, pp. 376–377.
- Hako, pp. 365, 368, 377.