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MARCH 16, 1898 - JULY 5, 1992

La Julia Rhea’s career exemplifies the crossover approach necessary for many Black singers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Born Lu Julia Ray in Louisville, KY, she moved to Chicago in 1914 after the death of her father. There she studied voice with Pauline James Lee and attended the Chicago Musical College when money was available. Her professional career began in 1927 when she appeared in variety shows at the Royal Theater on Chicago’s South Side, often singing arias repeatedly for multiple shows each week. She performed her debut recital at Kimball Hall in Chicago in 1929, after which she toured extensively, performing solo recitals across the Midwest. She toured with Ethel Waters in the Cecil Mack production of Rhapsody in Black and performed regularly with the Cecil Mack Choir. In 1934 she auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera; her manager felt it went well, but the company was not ready to cast a Black performer. As a member of the Major Bowes Amateur Radio hour performing group, she sang arias numerous times as part of the evening’s performances, but her first opportunity to perform a role on stage came in 1937 when she and William Franklin were hired to perform the lead roles in a Chicago Civic Opera Company’s summer production of Aïda for the benefit of Chicago’s Provident Hospital. She then petitioned the Metropolitan Opera for another audition; her request was rejected and she continued to perform frequently in the Chicago area. In subsequent years she sang several times with the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC) in Chicago and Pittsburgh and continued to perform recitals throughout the Midwest and Southeast, primarily at historically black venues. She retired from the concert stage in 1949, living the remainder of her life in Chicago.


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