Karla Burns

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Karla Burns
Born(1954-12-24)December 24, 1954
DiedJune 4, 2021(2021-06-04) (aged 66)
Wichita, Kansas
  • Actress
  • singer
Years active1977–2020

Karla Burns (December 24, 1954[1] – June 4, 2021) was an American operatic mezzo-soprano and actress who performed nationally and internationally in opera houses, theaters, and on television. Her first major success was as Queenie in the Houston Grand Opera's 1982 revival of Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern's 1927 musical Show Boat. This production premiered in Houston, and then toured nationally and on Broadway. For her portrayal of Queenie, Burns won a Drama Desk Award and received a nomination for the Tony Award. The role of Queenie became a pivotal part in Burn's career, and she portrayed the character in many productions internationally for two decades. For this part, she became the first black person, African-American or otherwise, to win the Laurence Olivier Award, Britain's most prestigious award for theatre.[1]

Burns's career spanned a broad repertoire from musical theatre, to opera, and stage plays. Her work included performances with the Metropolitan Opera, Paris Opera, the Teatro Real, Cairo Opera House, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. On the opera stage she was particularly associated with the role of Addie in Marc Blitzstein's Regina. She toured nationally for many years in her one woman show, Hi-Hat Hattie, in which she portrayed Hattie McDaniel, the first black entertainer to win an Academy Award.

Early life and education[edit]

Burns was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, to parents Ira Willie Lee Burns and Catherine S. Burns.[1] Burns credited her parents with inspiring her musical gifts. Her father was a jazz and gospel pianist and her mother sang spirituals and old hymns at church.[2] Burns played the clarinet in a band while growing up and graduated from Wichita West High School.[3]

Burns attended Wichita State University from which she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music Education and a BA in Theater Performance.[1]

A career defining role: Queenie in Show Boat[edit]

Burn made her professional stage debut in 1977 while still a college student in Wichita State University at the old Victory Theatre in Wichita.[4] Her break through performance came in the celebrated 1982 Houston Grand Opera revival of Jerome Kern's Show Boat in which she played the role of Queenie.[5] Directed by Michael Kahn and starring Lonette McKee and Ron Raines, the HGO production premiered at Jones Hall in Houston in June 1982, and then toured for performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., and finally to the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway in 1983.[6][5][7]

Burns won a Drama Desk Award and was nominated for a Tony Award for her work in this production.[8][9][10] The HGO production also toured overseas to the Cairo Opera House in Egypt. Burns commented in an interview that Egyptian audiences struggled to comprehend how a character with so little power could be important to the story.[5] She stated,

I'm of the belief that Queenie is a woman who just happened to have been born in a period that didn't allow her to speak her mind ... But in Egypt they took her name Queenie for Queen. It did something to them culturally, made them feel good about having dark skins. When I was doing interviews there, they really wanted to hear that she was more than just a boat's cook. I was able to tell them, she certainly was.[11]

The role of Queenie became a staple part in Burns' performance repertoire; after the Broadway production ended, she went on to recreate that character in ten more productions during her career.[5] Of these productions, the most significant was the 1989 Opera North and Royal Shakespeare Company revival of Show Boat.[5] When the show moved to the London Palladium in 1991, Burns won the Laurence Olivier Award, the United Kingdom's most prestigious prize for theatre, for her work in the show. This was the first time a Black artist was awarded this prize.[12] Burns again reprised the role of Queenie with Opéra national du Rhin in Strasbourg, France in 2002.[13] She also recorded the role for EMI Classics with the London Sinfonietta and a cast that included Frederica von Stade, Teresa Stratas, and Jerry Hadley in 1988.[14]

Other performances[edit]

After the Broadway production of Show Boat closed, Burns was cast as Mary in Noa Ain's jazz opera Trio which premiered at the American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia in July 1984 at the Philadelphia College of Art.[15] She reprised the role at Carnegie Hall the following October.[16] That same month she was a featured performer at the "Centenary Gala" celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Jerome Kern at The Town Hall.[17] In 1985-1986 she starred in a 22-week run in Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd's A... My Name Is Alice at the Alley Theatre in Houston which later transferred to the Alcazar Theatre in San Francisco.[18] She portrayed Bloody Mary in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific at the Darien Dinner Theatre in 1986.[19] In 1988 she portrayed Sister Robert Anne in Dan Goggin's Nunsense at the Roxy Theatre in Atlanta.[20]

Burns also appeared in numerous William Shakespeare plays including as the Duke of Ephesus/Luce in the 1987 Lincoln Center production of The Comedy of Errors at the Vivian Beaumont Theater with the The Flying Karamazov Brothers.[21] That production was filmed for PBS's Live from Lincoln Center.[22] She appeared in The Comedy Of Errors again, this time as Nell, with New York's Shakespeare in the Park starring Marisa Tomei in 1992.[23] She returned to Shakespeare in the Park in 1993 as Mistress Overdone in Measure for Measure with Kevin Kline, Blair Underwood and Andre Braugher.[24]

On the opera stage, Burns achieved success as Addie in Marc Blitzstein's Regina which she first performed at the Long Wharf Theatre in 1988.[25] She reprised that role with several opera companies during her career, including Opera Pacific in 1996 and the Chautauqua Opera in 1997.[26][27] In 1989 Burns appeared at the Metropolitan Opera as Lily in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1989).[28][29]

Burns is known for the one-woman musical Hi-Hat Hattie, which was written by Larry Parr and examined the life of actress Hattie McDaniel.[1] Burns' debut performance of Hi-Hat, Hattie was 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, Florida. She performed the show in 2006 in honor of the Hattie McDaniel stamp and as late as the spring of 2018 after recovering from health issues.[30]

Burns' regional theater productions include roles in several plays and musicals; 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 Regina Taylor's Crowns, Jeanette in The Full Monty, and Mother Superior, Robert Anne and Sister Hubert in Nunsense, among others.[31] In 2003 she starred in Andy Razaf's Tan Manhattan at the Chicago Humanities Festival held at Northwestern University.[32]

In addition to her appearance on Live from Lincoln Center, Burns' television credits include the role of Hottie Joseph in the 1984 TV movie The Parade with Geraldine Page.[33] She appeared as Karla the Klown in the children's program One of a Kind, and the crime drama True Blue with Robert Earl Jones.[31]

For the dedication of the refurbished Orpheum Theater in Wichita, Burns performed with 53 children Boogie with Burns Broadway Revue, in 2003.[34]

Later years[edit]

In 2007 Burns had surgery to remove an almost ten-pound goiter from her neck.[35] The surgery significantly affected her speaking and singing voice, and she worked with therapists and vocal coaches to regain her singing voice.[36]

Burns was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2016 from Wichita State.[37] She resided in Wichita and was active as a performer in regional theatre productions up until 2020.[1]


Burns died at age 66 on June 3, 2021.[38]

Awards and honors[edit]

  • Burns was nominated for the Tony Award for featured actress in a Musical for the 1982–83 season for Show Boat.[39]
  • Burns won the Drama Desk Award for the role of Queenie in Show Boat in 1983.[10]
  • Burns received the Olivier Award in 1991 for her role as Queenie in Show Boat.[40]
  • Burns received the Kansas Governor's Arts Award for Individual Achievement as an Artist in 1991.[41]
  • Burns received the Kansas African American Museum Trailblazer Award in 2000.[1]
  • Burns was named one of the top Forty faces that changed Wichita State University in the Millennium.[42]
  • Burns was given the Wichita Arts Council Award for Performance and Education in 2012.[41]
  • December 17 through December 24 was declared "Karla Burns Week" in the city of Wichita by mayor Carl Brewer in 2013.[41]
  • Burns was a 2016 inductee to the Wichita State University Fine Arts Hall of Fame, and received an honorary doctorate from this university in the same year.[37]


  • Songs of New York (1984)[43]
  • Jerome Kern: Show Boat, conducted by John McGlinn, EMI (1988)[5]
  • Cole Porter: Kiss Me Kate, with the London Sinfonietta, EMI (1990, as Hattie)[44]
  • Karla Burns...A Spiritual Mosaic (1998)[45]
  • Karla Burns and Earnest Alexander – A Christmas Celebration (2001)[46]
  • Burns By Request (2004)
  • La Burns ... A Red Hot Momma's Tribute, with Mark Foley, JC Combs and Bill Thompson (2005)


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Leiker, Amy Renee (June 4, 2021). Karla Burns, music theater trailblazer who won coveted Olivier award, dies at 66. The Wichita Eagle.
  2. ^ Bonnie Bing (June 30, 2015). "Brunch with Bonnie: Karla Burns". Wichita Magazine.
  3. ^ Bonnie Bing (February 26, 2012). "Successful Wichita natives praise their schooling here". The Wichita Eagle.
  4. ^ Last Rites' Happenings Salute Wichita Theatre. Boxoffice. 112. October 31, 1977. p. C4.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Todd Decker (2012). "Queenie's Laugh, 1966–1998". Show BoatPerforming Race in an American Musical. Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ Victor Gluck (August 27, 1982). "B 'WAY RECYCLES CLASSIC WARES". Back Stage. 23 (35): 39-40, 42, 44.
  7. ^ Legitimate: Show Out Of Town - Show Boat. Variety. 307. June 30, 1982. p. 84.
  8. ^ Teri Mott (June 2013). "For Karla Burns Life Is A Wild Ride". Women's Focus.
  9. ^ "A Tony Award Nominee, 250-Pound Karla Burns, Makes It Big on Broadway". People. 19 (22). June 6, 1983.
  10. ^ a b "Legitimate: DRAMA DESK AWARDS AT RAINBOW ROOM". Variety. 311 (5): 70. June 1, 1983.
  11. ^ Sarah Gristwood (July 27, 1990). A rounded performance. The Guardian. p. 31.
  12. ^ "COHNwsltrFall2002" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on June 7, 2014. Retrieved April 1, 2008.
  13. ^ OPERA: "'Show Boat' after 75 years", International Herald Tribune, March 27, 2002
  14. ^ Jonathan Yardley (November 7, 1988). Can't Help Loving That 'Show Boat'. The Washington Post. p. B2.
  15. ^ Harry Harris (July 25, 1984). "Legitimate: Philly Fest Has Its Moments, But Overall It's A Bit Sluggish". Variety. 315 (13): 83, 86.
  16. ^ Will Crutchfield (October 14, 1984). "CRITICS' CHOICES; MUSIC". The New York Times.
  17. ^ John S. Wilson (October 17, 1984). "MUSIC: SONGS OF KERN". The New York Times.
  18. ^ "Legitimate: Alley Theater's 'Alice' Sets Booking In Frisco". Variety. 322 (3): 111. February 12, 1986.
  19. ^ Alvin Klein (September 28, 1986). Darien Gets 'South Pacific' Half Right. The New York Times. p. CN23.
  20. ^ Beverly Parker (February 14, 1988). "Nunsense" Is Full Of Laughs And Fun. Atlanta Daily World. p. 7.
  21. ^ Mel Gussow (June 1, 1987). The Stage: 'Comedy Of Errors'. The New York Times'. p. C12.
  22. ^ Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, Donald McNeilly (2007). Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Volume 1. Routledge. p. 394. ISBN 9780415938532.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  23. ^ Mel Gussow (August 17, 1992). "Review/Theater -- The Comedy of Errors; Broad Farce Made Even Broader With Acrobats and Sound Effects". The New York Times.
  24. ^ Frank Rich (July 19, 1993). The Very Human Mix of Benign and Malign: Measure for Measure A Very Human Mix of the Benign and Malign. The New York Times. p. C11.
  25. ^ John Rockwell (May 9, 1988). Mixing Opera and Pop in 'Regina': The text is adapted from Lillian Hellman's drama 'The Little Foxes. The New York Times. p. C14.
  26. ^ Daniel Cariaga (July 1, 1996). In review: Costa Mesa, CA. Opera News. 61. p. 53-53.
  27. ^ COTTON CLASH. Buffalo News. July 11, 1997.
  28. ^ Nikki Hansson (December 2, 1999). "Opera singer Karla Burns scheduled to visit WSU". Inside WSU. 16 (8).
  29. ^ Donal Henahan (September 29, 1989). "Review/Opera; 'Porgy and Bess': Catfish Row at the Met". The New York Times.
  30. ^ Carla Eckels (April 12, 2018). Karla Burns Reprises Role Of Famous Wichitan Hattie McDaniel In 'Hi-Hat Hattie'. KMUW (NPR).
  31. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on May 27, 2007. Retrieved April 1, 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  32. ^ Lawrence Van Gelder (November 6, 2003). ARTS BRIEFING: HIGHLIGHTS. The New York Times. p. E2.
  33. ^ "Karla Burns". IMDb.
  34. ^ "Broadway To Vegas May 30, 2004". www.broadwaytovegas.com.
  35. ^ Bonita Gooch (June 4, 2021). Wichita Native and Broadway Star Karla Burns Dead at 66. The Community Voice.
  36. ^ Bob Curtright (October 9, 2011). Classic 'Forum' farce to help Forum Theatre debut. The Wichita Eagle.
  37. ^ a b Eckels, Carla (December 9, 2016). "WSU To Honor Opera Stars Karla Burns And Samuel Ramey". www.kmuw.org. Retrieved June 6, 2021.
  38. ^ Lawson, George (June 4, 2021). "Broadway actress, Wichita native Karla Burns dies at 66". KFDI. Retrieved June 5, 2021.
  39. ^ Lee Alan Morrow (1987). The Tony Award Book: Four Decades of Great American Theater. Abbeville Press. p. 257.
  40. ^ "IN FOCUS: 15th Olivier Awards Honor London's Best". Back Stage. 32 (15): 2. April 12, 1991.
  41. ^ a b c Carla Eckels (December 17, 2013). Mayor Carl Brewer Proclaims Karla Burns Week. KMUW (NPR).
  42. ^ Wichita State University. "Karla Burns". College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame. Retrieved June 6, 2021.
  43. ^ SONGS OF NEW YORK. Library of Congress. Retrieved June 7, 2021.
  44. ^ Richard Traubner (March 30, 1991). "Porter: Kiss Me Kate. (Josephine Barstow, Kim Criswell, Karla Burns, Thomas Hampson, George Dvorsky, Damon Evans, Ambrosian Chorus, London Sinfonietta, John McGlinn)". Opera News. 55 (14): 33.
  45. ^ A spiritual mosaic in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  46. ^ A Christmas celebration in libraries (WorldCat catalog)

External links[edit]