Bewitched by his story

BY SALLY JACKSON

Who would have thought that the woman in the NFSA’s Canberra foyer would bewitch all those who met her and enchant even the hardened Canberra media? Of course, I then knew nothing about Andre Navarre or his daughter Andree, who had arrived at the NFSA with a potential donation.

I’ll never forget that day when I met Andree. It was a wet and dismal day and the foyer was busy with people and incredibly noisy. I caught only fragments of what she told me but I was already under her spell. This beautifully groomed woman, a septuagenarian, with her sparkling eyes and siren-like voice, had won me over (me, a world-weary curator with nary a smile for anyone).

Andree Navarre, daughter of Andre Navarre, at the Navarre! exhibition

I resolved to find out what I could about Andre Navarre and to have the film clips she brought with her preserved and ready to be viewed as soon as humanly possible. Since then, the films have been carefully preserved. Andree also donated her father’s scrapbook and the sound recordings he made, all of which are catalogued, stored and accessible in the national collection.

Andre Navarre is a name not widely known in Australia, except perhaps by ardent aficionados or fans of 1920s Australian opera and musical theatre, live English variety shows and BBC radio programs of the 1930s. It’s become important to me to tell the story of this aspiring and talented opera singer and how he found fame and fortune by impersonating other singers. His enchanting daughter aside, the story of an Aussie who made good overseas is always an interesting one. But when they are virtually forgotten or unknown it becomes an imperative not only to remember them, but to recreate them for an audience unfamiliar with their work.

It is always a challenge to turn the two dimensional into three. No matter how much background research you do, no matter how complete the scrapbook they meticulously kept, no matter how many sound recordings you listen to or film clips you watch, the essence of the person is still hard to capture.

I took up the challenge to recreate Andre Navarre’s life with co-curator Tamara Osicka (from Sound, Broadcasting and New Media) and Morgyn Phillips and Stephanie Scroope from NFSA Exhibitions. Navarre’s story has bewitched all of us. The exhibition is simple and minimal, a tribute to Andre Navarre with the collection items on display telling his story and reflecting his achievements.

Now, almost two years after her first visit to the NFSA, Andree Navarre has just left after another action-packed visit. At the NFSA to record an oral history, she shared with us her father’s life as recalled from her childhood memories and what she came to understand about him through the memories of others. She talked about his devastating death and how she coped with his absence; her recollections of the reactions of the public to his death and how they missed him.

After a whirlwind of media interest — very nearly tears on Saturday morning radio and singing in the NFSA library with a journalist — Andree’s stories of her father, her mother and their life together are now ours as well. And after years away, Andre Navarre has finally come home.

Explore Andre Navarre in the national collection.