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Although he is not widely known today as a composer for the theater, Dvořák himself thought that opera was central to his creative work. His early professional career as a violist at the Provisional Theater in Prague gave him an intimate knowledge of the international standards of the time as well as the work of Czech composers. (He played in the premieres of three of Smetana’s operas, for example.) He wrote 14 operas, from 1870 to 1903, although only the fairy tale Rusalka (1900) has much presence now.

The five-act tragedy Vanda is about an historical Polish queen, who drowns herself in the Vistula River to save her people from invading Germans. At its premiere, at the Provisional Theater in April, 1876, it had just a short orchestral introduction. When Dvořák revised it for a new production at the National Theater in 1879, he wrote a dramatic new overture, a fiercely expressive rondo on themes from the opera.

—John Henken