Interview with Te Atamira resident artist Margaret O'Hanlon, who is a singer, teacher, choir leader, musical theatre director as well as a tireless supporter and promoter of the performing arts across the region.
She is a trustee on the Queenstown Performing Arts Centre Trust, Creative Queenstown and The Songstars Trust. She developed and maintains The Singers Workshop, which provides singing courses on Beginner Level to Performance Level. In 2022, she set Te Atamira Sing! - a community choir, which meets on the first Tuesday of every month at Te Atamira. She also programmes Te Atamira Nights - an occasional series of performances and gigs - and the Song Circle group for original songwriters and performers. I asked her a few questions about her creative pathways.
- Louise Garrett, arts and culture coordinator, Te Atamira
Louise Garrett: You were brought up in NYC – how did you come to settle in the Whakatipu region? Can you describe your journey from there to here?
Margaret O’Hanlon: Like so many other Queenstowners, I was a backpacker just passing through. I hardly knew New Zealand existed, let alone Queenstown (this was in 1988). I had planned on staying 2 weeks – I ended up staying 5 months. What stood out about this tiny town was that there was music in just about every venue, 7 nights a week. I also happened to meet my husband Nigel (also a musician) on the very first night I arrived. He was playing that saxophone with his band at a pub called Eichardts, and I thought they were pretty amazing. That exact same night I happened to jump on the mic with another guy in another venue, and was offered a gig at a place called The Dolphin Club (now Fear Factor). This was a too-good-to-be-true moment, so I decided to stay for the summer. A year later I married Nigel and stayed for good.
LG: Tell us about your career as a musician. How did you start out and what steps did you take to forge a career in music? What inspired you to become a singer?
MO: I always knew I wanted to be a singer. When I was 5 years old I watched Harry Belafonte singing “Mr Bo Jangles” on TV, and from then on there was no doubt in my mind that the stage was where I wanted to be! At 13 I auditioned for the LaGuardia School of The Arts in NYC, and was accepted. The training I received there was invaluable; I learned classical music, musical theatre, jazz, choral music, and excellent techniques. As brilliant as it was, I never had a ‘big’ voice, nor did I have a specific area of concentration (like classical or musical theatre, etc.) that weighed in better than another, so I couldn’t see a path to professionalism. I also discovered drama and my ability to act, and was singled out for an award in acting. I really wanted to direct then, so I gave up singing for 7 years, and studied film at Uni (SUNY Purchase) with hopes of becoming a Director/Screenwriter. But I found the film industry to be very insular and difficult to navigate, and never quite able to get a foot in the door. At this point I was back living in NYC and was invited by a friend to accompany her to an ‘open-mic’, which got me back into singing. I started working with a composer and we did the cabaret circuit in Greenwich Village combining music and comedy. It was around that time that I was bit by the travel bug and became fascinated with Australia. From there, I was introduced to New Zealand.
LG: A lot of your time at Te Atamira is taken up with teaching 1:1 students and groups through The Singers Workshop NZ. Describe your philosophy as an educator. What kinds of responses do you most enjoy seeing in your students?
MO: I’m a firm believer of finding your ’natural voice’. Singing is really a primal activity, like crying or expressing ecstasy, or laughing. Language is learned and gets in the way of that natural approach, and we confuse our ability to talk, and the muscles we use to talk with our ability to sing and the muscles we need to use to sing. I like to remind people that if they can cry, they can sing. So much of what I do is geared to helping my students find their way back to their true voice. I love seeing them get to know their voices and become brave enough to use them.
LG: You also work as a choir master and musical director for local musical theatre and community groups. How have these experiences influenced your vision as an artist and musician?
MO: Ha-ha! I’m not sure they have – I think it’s been the other way around; I think I’ve dragged my vision as an artist into my work with choirs and musical direction.
LG: Describe some of the highlights of career so far.
MO: I’m most pleased with Whirlwind Productions; writing, producing and directing our full-length original musicals.One of my favourites would have to be “Rock and Roll Suicide” (2010), a rock opera set to the music of David Bowie, second only to “Crazy” (2018), a musical exploring mental health. I love writing and I love directing and I love arranging vocals and large-scale musical theatre pulls all that together. But going further back (1991-2008), creating the monthly variety show called “Showcase”, which was literally the first open-mic in Queenstown for original musicians and comedians. For 10 years we did a show called “Starry Eyed” (1998-2007) which was such a major event in Queenstown we were featured on TV3’s Nightline each year! I loved “Songstars” (2011-15) which ran for 5 years and featured songwriters and their work. We were endorsed and supported by NZonAir and Play It Strange. Another proud achievement was pulling the Queenstown Performing Arts Centre Trust together and renovating the old HighSchool block into a functional Performing Arts Centre (2000-2022). For over 20 years we provided a space for music, dance and theatrical groups. I’ve loved watching my students move forward and forge careers in the performing arts. Lately I am most proud of “Song Circle” which brings songwriters together to perform and collaborate - amazing experience. I love our “Community Sing” which is open to everybody. And I’ve come full-circle with the creation of the “Tiny Room Concert” which gives working musicians the chance to create a one-hour mini show (as opposed to just doing a ‘gig’) for a listening audience, based around a theme; very reminiscent of the Cabaret shows I once did in Greenwich Village!
LG: Do you have an unfinished project you’d really like to realise?
MO: I’d like to re-upholster a chair.