When SPLURGE! interviewed Karla Burns for the FYI section this month, we wanted to highlight the occasion of the internationally recognized singer and actress being honored twice in one month in her own hometown. But Burns, with her trademark energy and warmth, went on to share her enthusiasm for her fellow inductees. We couldn’t fit it all on one magazine page, so here's Karla Burns on two people who’ve inspired her greatly, and her plans for the future.
Burns — born, raised and trained in Wichita — was named one of the top 40 faces to change Wichita State University in the Millennium and was the only black female to receive the Kansas Governor’s Arts Award. A Tony Award nominee, she’s performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and in opera houses all over Europe.
In May Burns was celebrated as one of 60 Wichita African-American leaders in an exhibit on the newly opened Redbud Trail. Her image and story are located near 13th and Roosevelt, but she’s most excited about being positioned next to her idol, Hattie McDaniel, fellow Wichitan and the first African-American to win an Academy Award in 1940, for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.”
McDaniel was born in 1895 and lived 10 blocks from where Burns grew up. “The first person of color to win an Oscar was from Wichita, KS,” explains Burns. “That’s a lot to say. That’s a lesson that every child ought to know, I don’t care what color.”
Burns is proud to have played many of the roles that McDaniel originated, and has even performed a one-woman show about the actress titled “High-Hat Hattie,” which includes 14 songs. She’s looking forward to kids riding their bikes on the Redbud Trail and discovering that, “Wichita is filled with history beyond belief.” “People are just buzzing about the artwork, and the fact that, wow, they didn’t know we had so many incredible people here.”
Dr. George Gibson
One week later Burns was inducted into the WSU Fine Arts Hall of Fame, a recognition that was especially significant thanks to her former voice instructor, Dr. George Gibson, joining her as a fellow inductee. She’s still in touch with her college professor and mentor, who’s now living in Tucson, AZ with his wife. Although retired, he travels to Washington DC once a month to teach 67 students.
Burns has many fond memories of Dr. Gibson from her WSU days, including playing Dame Quickly to his Falstaff, and singing the ingenue role opposite him in Phantom of the Opera.
“I don’t often get to sing the ingenue role in opera, or even in a musical…he was my Phantom and it was quite funny, quite unusual — it was great fun.”
Once Burns’ career took off, she would find herself in some “faraway land across the water,” calling her mentor for advice before a performance. He would listen over the phone and say, “I don’t think you’re breathing, darling, what you need to do is…” and he would be right.
In 2007 Burns underwent major surgery deep within her chest and throat. Although her vocal cords weren’t involved, doctors said she’d never sing again. That’s when Dr. Gibson told Burns “I believe you can [sing] and will again…don’t give up, don’t give up.”
Burns underwent a period of intensive vocal therapy in Wichita and Lawrence; Dr. Gibson coached her again over the phone, “And that was the second time that he told me that he thought that I could and that I would — and he was right.” She’s “amazed” at her journey as a young woman from Wichita KS. “And I’m still journeying, I’m still traveling through time and space and learning and growing and having a chance to have a rebirth with my voice.”
What’s next on her journey? She’s formed a singing and dancing duo called the S’mores, partnering with Ann Garvey. The two are working with people like Bucky Walters who’s writing new material for them.
“She’s the marshmallow — she’s white — and I’m the chocolate, and we’re both looking for our graham cracker crust.”
When asked what the graham cracker crust represents, she says, “Looking for our mates, baby girl!”
Burns is also in negotiations to reprise her one-woman show, “High-Hat Hattie.”
“I think I’m ready.”