Dec. 27, 2023

Portrait of a Wagnerian

Matt Healey on the minute the composer’s work grabbed him—and never let go. 
Lyric Opera of Chicago presented Michael Grandage's Parsifal in 2014. Photo credit: Robert Kusel

For years, Matt Healey could best be described as a casual opera fan. Originally from Chicago, he lived in New York for a few years—occasionally catching a performance at the Lyric or the Met—before moving to Houston in 2012. But in 2014, something big happened to him. Healey went to see Houston Grand Opera’s production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first opera in the composer’s four-part Ring cycle, which HGO staged over four seasons. And his life changed forever.  


“It deeply impacted me as a person,” he shared with Opera Cues. “From the moment the curtains opened to the E flat and the Rhine maidens in the glass water tanks, I was just immediately hooked by it. It spoke to me in a way that no other piece of art or any experience on earth has spoken to me since then.  


“I felt like my will and myself—the core of my being, spirit, soul—something about the Ring cycle transformed that part of me in a way that I don’t fully see or appreciate to this day. But I felt changed coming out of it.” 


He was blown away by the production, a massive, ambitious undertaking that, together with the next three operas, would carry a price tag of $16 million. He was in awe of the scenery, the way the humans onstage came together to create sculpture, the music. He called everyone he knew. He told his friends in Chicago to get down to Houston. “It was a totally unique aesthetic experience. I was hooked at that point. I got more into opera overall, and super into Wagner, after that.”  

Healey at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany.

Not only did Healey return to HGO the next three years for the rest of the cycle—Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung—he started traveling to see Wagner operas at houses throughout the country. And two summers ago, for the first time, he went to Germany for the Bayreuth Festival. “I’m going to go for the rest of my life,” Healey said.  


What is that experience like? Ethereal, he said. Supernatural. “Everything is made of wood. There are no cushions. It’s such a warm, deep sound.” There’s no A/C at the annual August Wagner fest, and most people wear suits. This year, in addition to two of the Ring cycle operas, Healey saw Tannhauser and Parsifal there. It was during Parsifal, he said, that “a guy behind me passed out. I had to drag him out of the theater.” Lest there is any question: “It is worth it.” 


Healey is quick to point out that he is not a member of the “cult of Wagner.” He is drawn to not the man, but the music and text, the “deep complexity—even for opera, a singular complexity.” He is one of the generous HGO donors who is bringing Houstonians John Caird’s production of Parsifal, yet he insists he doesn’t love this opera.  


“I have a complicated relationship with Parsifal,” he says. He feels at odds with what he sees as its worldview—one of renunciation, instead of embracing the world. But Healey will still be at the Wortham for the production; he wouldn’t miss it.  

What is his advice to anyone seeing Parsifal for the first time? Read everything you can find about it, and prepare to be challenged. “This should challenge your conception of the world, yourself, and your place in it,” he said.  


Yes, life as a Wagnerian involves a roster of challenges, from the philosophical to the cushion-free variety. But Healey puts equal energy into indulging in life’s more straightforward pleasures. He is as quick to extol the large steins of beer, treble-shaped pretzels, and sausages to be had during intermission at Bayreuth as the art. And in addition to serving as a finance executive at an energy company, he owns El Segundo Swim Club in the East End.  


“You have to be balanced in life,” he smiles. “A little Dionysus, a little Apollo.”  

about the author
Catherine Matusow
Catherine Matusow is Director of Communications at Houston Grand Opera.