Rites of Passage (Sculthorpe)

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Rites of Passage is a music theatre work written by the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe in 1972–73. It is often categorised as an opera, but it does not conform to the traditional concept of opera. It is written for dancers depicting the ritual of initiation of the Aranda people, an indigenous tribe; double SATB chorus singing words from Boethius and others; three percussionists, two tubas, piano (echoed), six cellos and four double basses;[1] but no parts for individual singers.[2] Sculthorpe drew on the approach espoused by Jean-Baptiste Lully, in which dance, drama and music are not separated.[3]

It was commissioned by The Australian Opera for the opening of the Sydney Opera House in October 1973, but it was not ready on time so Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace was instead staged as the inaugural operatic production at the Opera House.

The delay was brought about partly by difficulties Sculthorpe experienced with the Opera House management, but most particularly in settling on a suitable libretto. He worked with seven writers[4] before finally deciding to write the libretto himself. He wrote most of the work in England, while he was Visiting Professor at the University of Sussex.[3]

The text uses words from Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy,[2] and also incorporates aboriginal, Ghanaian, and Tibetan chants. The libretto is influenced by Arnold van Gennep's anthropological study of an individual's social transitions.[1] It is written in Latin and the Australian indigenous language Upper Arrernte.[5] The music involves what Sculthorpe calls the Kepler motif, an alternation of the notes G and A-flat, which he has also employed in other works about the Earth.[6][7]

Rites of Passage was first performed at the Sydney Opera House on 27 September 1974. The Australian Opera Chorus, Australian Dance Theatre under their director Jaap Flier, and the Australian Elizabethan Trust Sydney Orchestra were all led by John Hopkins.[8][9] Sculthorpe was in attendance, and received both cheers and boos. The work itself received mixed reviews, headed by such disparate lines as "Boring Rites guilty of all that is wrong" and "New opera was great success".[10]

After its initial production, the work has been revived twice:

Excerpts from the work have been recorded. The Victorian College of the Arts Orchestra and the Melbourne Chorale Continuing Choir were conducted by John Hopkins.[13]

Sculthorpe's Lament (1976/91) borrowed material from Rites of Passage.[14]


  1. ^ a b "Peter Sculthorpe". arkivmusic.com. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  2. ^ a b jstor
  3. ^ a b "Peter Sculthorpe – Interview Transcript tape 5". australianbiography.gov.au. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  4. ^ Roger Covell, Review of Graeme Skinner's biography Peter Sculthorpe: The Making of an Australian Composer, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 2007
  5. ^ University of Sydney, Citation for admission to the degree of Doctor of Music (honoris causa), 3 June 2005
  6. ^ Faber Music, Peter Sculthorpe writes new work in aid of climate change
  7. ^ "True believer composes for the planet". Brisbane Times. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  8. ^ Sculthorpe Worklist Archived 2009-07-29 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ "Peter Sculthorpe – Rites of Passage : Fitter's Workshop : 8.May.09 : Event : Australian Music Centre". australianmusiccentre.com.au. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  10. ^ "Peter Sculthorpe – TV Script". australianbiography.gov.au. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  11. ^ a b "Rites of passage (music theatre) by Peter Sculthorpe : Work : Australian Music Centre". australianmusiccentre.com.au. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  12. ^ "Sculthorpe concerts at Canberra International Music Festival : Review (Event) Article : Australian Music Centre". australianmusiccentre.com.au. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  13. ^ "Dust in the Nostrils". dustinthenostrils.blogspot.com. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  14. ^ Music Web International

Further reading[edit]

  • Michael Hannan: Peter Sculthorpe (UQ Press, 1982)