Singing in the rain: Margaret O'Hanlon

She’s Queenstown’s first lady of song. Margaret O’Hanlon, who this week won Kiwibank hero’ award, pauses from her busy schedule to discuss her life in music, and the risks she takes, with Philip Chandler.

It’s 1989 as a pivotal moment in the life of New York songstress Margaret O’Hanlon unfolds.

Backpacking around the world, she’d stopped off in Queenstown, been paid $100 for a gig – “unthinkable money”, at that point – and met Kiwi muso Nigel Hirst, who’d organised an open mic night she’d sung at.

Despite the pair falling madly in love, “I just didn’t think that moving to New Zealand was a reality”, she says.

So she travelled to Indochina, but got very sick with malaria.

O’Hanlon was in a quandary because Hirst had asked her to come back so he could marry her, but her dad wanted her home for Christmas.

“He said, ‘come home, come home’, and I didn’t – I went to Nigel.”

Talk about a win-win for Queenstown, and her hubby-to-be.

In the 30 years since, O’Hanlon – who this week picked up a Kiwibank ‘local hero’ award – has made an unparalleled contribution to the resort as a singing teacher/performer, show producer and director and proponent of the arts.

She hadn’t come from a particularly musical family, but had always sung.

“From five years old, I wanted to be Ray Charles.

“I remember hearing him sing Georgia On My Mind, and I thought, ‘f… me, if I could sing like that’, and the second most impressionable performance was Harry Belafonte, Jr, singing Mr Bojangles on The Ed Sullivan Show, or whatever.”

From 14 to 17, she attended New York’s then-High School of Performing Arts.

Director Alan Parker scoped it for the movie, Fame, during O’Hanlon’s last year there.

After attaining university degrees in film and sociology, she worked as a secretary for an arts magazine for $250 a week and wrote and performed songs in Greenwich Village.

“I don’t know if I could have kept it up.”

She went backpacking instead.

In Queenstown, she’s best known for her endless stream of music productions – including her Starry Eyed contests, where singers aped a singer’s hit song, her songwriting show, Songstars, and, so far, eight self-penned rock and roll musicals – this year it was Radio Kaos, in concert with Charlotte Graf.

In 2010, two hours before her tribute to David Bowie, Rock and Roll Suicide, went on stage, she was shocked to learn the Australasian Performing Right Association needed a licence to use his music.

Thankfully, the show went on and she got retrospective approval.

“My major problem [with shows] is I refuse to do them on a small scale – constantly, like it’s 20 people and choruses and songs that have to be written.

“I should really focus on a two-person show.”

Shows are also financially risky – “playing with the money markets doesn’t interest me at all, but I get the concept”.

“You have a concept that you don’t want to compromise on, but the cost is always ridiculously out of your [reach].”

Appropriately, her production company’s called ‘whirlwhind’.

“I don’t give long-term planning the due process it deserves.

“I think of an idea and I need to see the idea [executed], so usually I’m putting these things together extremely quickly.

“I want my logo to be the Tasmanian devil, but it’s been taken.”

O’Hanlon says her favourite thing is teaching singers, especially adults who’ve not known they had a voice.

But she’s also brought on a heap of young singers like Emily Burns and Tom and Sam Maxwell.

Her other big achievement’s been helping develop, with a trust, the Queenstown Performing Arts Centre from a dilapidated former school building.

“It was phenomenal, and we were happy to operate on the smell of a greasy rag.”

However, Queenstown now desperately needs a new performing arts centre, she says.

“I have been to seven million ‘discuss-athons’, and I have been very much reassured by the council that there will be a suitable replacement – it’s just very hard to see the end of that tunnel.”

Now 58, O’Hanlon says she and Hirst have been blessed with “a beautiful family” – lawyer-in-training son, Dexter, and singing, dancing, filmmaking daughter, Violet.

“She will flippin’ overtake me, and that’s fine.”