Soprano Marion Talley was a child prodigy whose rise was meteoric, but whose adult career was short lived. Born in Nevada, MO ("Nevada" was her middle name), Talley moved as an infant with her family to Kansas City. By the time she was eight Talley had studied both violin and piano and was the soprano soloist in her local church choir. At 15 she appeared as the lead in a production of Mignon with the Kansas City Grand Opera Company and was a huge success. Subsequently some of the movers and shakers within Kansas City society began to take interest in Talley and the possibility that she could make it big as an operatic soprano.
Civic leaders raised $10,000 at a benefit concert held in 1922 to send Talley to New York to study voice; the proceeds from a later concert sent her to continue her study in Italy. Talley made her Metropolitan Opera debut in February 1926 in the role of Gilda in Rigoletto; the 19-year-old Talley was then the youngest prima donna to appear on the Met stage and was an immediate sensation. Talley's debut was also heard in Kansas City where it was broadcast on radio, and she was featured on the front cover of Time Magazine on March 1. Talley signed onto a recording contract with Victor and appeared singing "Caro nome" in the historic first Vitaphone talking picture program at the Warner Brothers Theater on Broadway, held on August 6, 1926. This, oddly, proved the beginning of her undoing; while Talley was an attractive girl, she wasn't very photogenic and the closeness of the camera tended to exaggerate her strange-looking lip movements, resulting in some very harsh words from critics. Nevertheless, she made one more Vitaphone short, Quartette from Rigoletto, the following year alongside alto Jeanne Gordon, Beniamino Gigli, and Giuseppe de Luca. In 1929, the Metropolitan Opera decided not renew Talley's contract; she put the best face on it by stating she was retiring to her farm in Kansas. Instead, Talley moved to Hollywood in hopes of keeping her career in motion pictures going; she also worked on radio and made occasional concert appearances. Although Talley lived in the Los Angeles area for the rest of her life, she only appeared in one film, starring in Follow Your Heart (1936), a musical from Republic Pictures, a studio mainly associated with Westerns. Not long after its lukewarm reception, Talley definitively retired from show business at about the age of 30, never to return.
Marion Talley's biggest fanbase was in her native Kansas City, and she appreciated the support. Talley, however, was not thick-skinned enough to withstand unkindness from critics and found the attention paid to her personal life from scandal sheets and gossip columnists humiliating. Talley survived two disastrous marriages; the first one broke up amid a very public and acrimonious divorce that was followed in the newspapers in pinpoint detail. Despite her shortcomings as an actress and lack of screen presence, her singing -- preserved on many recordings, including some early radio airchecks -- remains impressive; Talley had an attractive and youthful voice that seldom betrayed the intense pressure that she was under, even though Talley herself insisted that public scrutiny and the challenges of life as a professional singer was taking the joy out of its sound.