Karla Burns (born December 24, 1954) is an American operatic mezzo-soprano and actress who has performed nationally and internationally in opera houses, theaters, and on television. She is notably the first black person, African-American or otherwise, to win the Laurence Olivier Award, Britain's most prestigious award for theatre.
Karla Burns was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas to parents Ira Willie Lee Burns and Catherine S. Burns. Burns credits her parents for inspiring her musical gifts. Her father was a jazz and gospel pianist and her mother sang spirituals and old hymns at church. Burns played the clarinet in band while growing up and graduated from Wichita West High School.
Burns attended Wichita State University from which she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music Education and a BA in Theater Performance. She was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2016 from Wichita State. After leaving college, Burns appeared throughout the world in musical and classical theater productions, operas and revues. Highlights of her career include performances with the Paris Opera, the Teatro Real in Madrid, Cairo Opera House, and the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. She has also appeared in performances at the Metropolitan Opera as Lily in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and in Noa Ain's Trio at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Burns is known for the one-woman musical that she has toured with and occasionally still performs. The show, Hi-Hat Hattie, was written by Larry Parr and examines the life of Hattie McDaniel, America's first Black Oscar winner. McDaniel and Burns' lives have some striking similarities. Both Burns and McDaniel were born in Wichita and both played Queenie in Show Boat. McDaniel was the first black actress to win an Oscar and Burns was the first black actress to win the coveted British Olivier award. Burns debut performance of Hi-Hat, Hattie at the Players Theater of Columbus, Ohio in 1991. She went on to perform the role in several other cities including Off-Broadway in New York and the Florida Studio Theater in Sarasota, FL. She performed the show in 2006 in honor of the Hattie McDaniel stamp and later in the spring of 2018 marking her own return to performance after handling some health issues. In 2007 she had surgery to remove an almost ten-pound goiter from her neck. The surgery significantly affected her speaking and singing voice and she worked with therapists and vocal coaches to regain her mezzo-soprano voice.
Burns came to fame through her Drama Desk Award winning and Tony Award nominated performance of Queenie in the 1983 Broadway revival of Jerome Kern's Show Boat. The show was brought to Broadway by the Houston Grand Opera with a run at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. before its Broadway debut. When the show moved to the London stage in 1991, Burns won an Olivier Award for her work in the show. This was the first time a Black artist was awarded this prize. The London production was produced by Opera North and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Burns again reprised the role of Queenie with Opéra national du Rhin in Strasbourg, France in 2002.
Burns has also appeared in numerous William Shakespeare productions including "Comedy of Errors" as Nell with Marisa Tomei. She was also seen as Mistress Overdone in "Measure for Measure" with Kevin Kline, Blair Underwood and Andre Braugher. Both were productions for New York City Shakespeare in the Park.
Her regional theater productions include roles in several plays and musicals. Bloody Mary in South Pacific, Dolly Levi in "Hello Dolly", Katisha in The Mikado, Berenice Sadie Brown in The Member of the Wedding , Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird, Mother Shaw in "Crowns", Jeanette in "The Full Monty", and Mother Superior, Robert Anne and Sister Hubert in "Nunsense", among others.
Burns' television credits include the role of Hottie Joseph in the 1984 TV movie The Parade with Geraldine Page and the roles of the Duke of Ephesus/Luce in the 1987 PBS broadcast of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors with the Flying Karamazov Brothers. The latter was a live recording from Lincoln Center of the 1987 Broadway revival. She appeared as Karla the Klown in One of a Kind (1980 syndicated children's TV series) and True Blue with Robert Earl Jones. She has also made guest appearances on Merv Griffin, the Wogan Show in London and in 2012 on It's All Good "A Karla Burns Special" with Sierra Scott.
For the dedication of the refurbished Orpheum Theater in downtown Wichita, Burns performed with 53 children Boogie with Burns Broadway Revue, in 2003.
She currently performs internationally and resides in Wichita where she has a full roster of private students as she shares her talents and experiences with the next generation.
Awards and honors
- Burns was nominated for the Tony Award for featured actress in a Musical for the 1982-83 season for Showboat
- Burns won the Drama Desk Award for the role of Queenie in Showboat in 1983
- Burns received the Olivier Award in 1991 for her role as Queenie in the musical Showboat.
- Burns received the Kansas Governor's Arts Award for Individual Achievement as an Artist in 1991.
- Burns received the Kansas African American Museum Trailblazer Award in 2000
- Burns was named one of the top Forty faces that changed Wichita State in the Millennium
- Burns was given the Wichita Arts Council Award for Performance and Education in 2012
- Burns received a proclamation from the mayor of Wichita Carl Brewer for work with the Wichita Communuty
- Burns was a 2016 inductee to the Wichita State University FINE ARTS HALL OF FAME.
- Burns was inducted to the Red Bud Bicycle Trail (one of 60 leading Wichita African-Americans honored by the City of Wichita) in May 2016
- Burns recorded the role of Queenie in EMI/Angel's landmark 1988 recording of Show Boat This is the only recording of the show's complete score with the original 1927 orchestrations and vocal arrangements.
- Burns recorded the role of Hattie in Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate with the London Sinfonietta on the 1990 EMI Studio recording.
- Songs of New York 1984
- Karla Burns...A Spiritual Mosaic in 1998
- Karla Burns and Earnest Alexander - A Christmas Celebration in 2001
- Burns By Request in 2004
- La Burns ... A Red Hot Momma's Tribute with Mark Foley, JC Combs and Bill Thompson in 2005
- Bonnie Bing (June 30, 2015). "Brunch with Bonnie: Karla Burns". Wichita Magazine.
- Nikki Hansson (December 2, 1999). "Opera singer Karla Burns scheduled to visit WSU". Inside WSU. 16 (8).
- Donal Henahan (September 29, 1989). "Review/Opera; 'Porgy and Bess': Catfish Row at the Met". The New York Times.
- Teri Mott (June 2013). "For Karla Burns Life Is A Wild Ride". Women's Focus.
- "A Tony Award Nominee, 250-Pound Karla Burns, Makes It Big on Broadway". People. 19 (22). June 6, 1983.
- OPERA: 'Show Boat' after 75 years - International Herald Tribune
- Karla Burns
- Broadway To Vegas May 30, 2004
- Karla Burns - Other works