David Bamberger
David Bamberger

Q&A: Drawn to Gilbert & Sullivan, and now the Bay Area

The very model of a modern Renaissance man — and a longtime fan of Gilbert and Sullivan — David Bamberger has worked as a director, teacher, librettist and author. Currently, he’s directing a musical in the South Bay and teaching sixth grade at his synagogue, Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos. In January, Bamberger will receive a lifetime achievement award from the National Opera Association for his decades of work.

J.: You have lent your considerable talents to so many different areas, so let’s start with what you’re doing today. You’ve staged more than 250 shows throughout the U.S., and since moving to the Bay Area a year ago to be closer to family, you’ve been directing here as well. What are you working on?

David Bamberger: I’m directing “Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Crown Jewel,” which runs through Oct. 6 at the Tabard Theatre in San Jose. This is the West Coast premiere, and it’s a delightful musical. In June, I directed Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” at the Lyric Theatre of San Jose, and I’ll direct “The Sorcerer” there next spring.

What draws you to Gilbert and Sullivan?

The scripts are so well done, and the shows remain startlingly contemporary. I grew up during the golden age of American musical theater, and at a time when Britain’s D’Oyly Carte Opera Company was touring their Gilbert and Sullivan productions. My dad, Bernard Jacob Bamberger, was a prominent rabbi, first in Albany, New York, and then in New York City, and my folks were very culturally inclined.

To date, you have directed or produced 11 of the legendary pair’s signature shows. What got you hooked?

The first of their shows I saw was “Iolanthe,” and right away I wanted to produce it at my school. There was a problem — my school was not co-ed. Decades later, when I produced “Iolanthe” at the Cleveland Opera, the staff was convinced I was making up for lost time.

While working as a stage manager for a Gilbert and Sullivan company in 1966, you landed a job as assistant stage director at New York City Opera. A decade later, you founded the Cleveland Opera with your wife, Carola, and John D. Heavenrich. Talk about that experience.

A lot of people in Cleveland thought it was a great idea, but nobody gave us any money. Even putting up the $25 registration fee to incorporate was difficult, but John said if we’d keep doing the work, he would pay the fee. There is a rabbinic story about the man who jumped into the Red Sea as Moses was praying, and then the waves parted. Faith doesn’t always do it — sometimes action makes things happen.

In celebration of the Cleveland Opera’s 25th anniversary in 2000, you brought in the Three Tenors — José Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Four years later, you collaborated with composer Lori Laitman on “Come to Me in Dreams,” an opera that commemorated the 75th anniversary of Anne Frank’s birth. Do any other standout moments come to mind?

I hired rock star Stewart Copeland, the former drummer of the band Police, to write an opera. When we presented his “Holy Blood and Crescent Moon” in 1989, we got news coverage from Tel Aviv to Mongolia.

In 2004, you were named artistic director of the opera program for the Cleveland Institute of Music. You were there 14 years, and your students have performed around the world. Your reach extends to other students as well, because you’ve written Jewish textbooks. What led to that work?

When I graduated from college, a teacher at my dad’s religious school dropped out, and he asked me to teach the Bible. I disliked the textbooks, so I wrote my own. Publisher Jacob Berman liked my writing and asked me to write some teachers’ guides. Later, he asked me to write “My People: Abba Eban’s History of the Jews,” a two-volume set that sold well for 30 years. I also wrote two other books.

Of the many things you do and have done, what gives you the greatest pleasure?

Being a husband — Carola and I have been married 54 years — a father and a grandfather.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.