It was a rare night at Teatro alla Scala with no hit-and-run romances bled in fire-and-ice betrayals, nor melodramatic outbursts punctuated by swords. Instead, the bright-eyed graduates of Teatro alla Scala's Academy took to the stage for a private concert and diploma ceremony on Sunday night.

The storied gatekeeper of the city's finest cultural export was seeded in 1813 as the Imperial Regia Accademia di Ballo, and later annexed into various satellites until 1997, when its present-day manifestation was established by La Scala’s then-music director, Riccardo Muti.

Academy Evening at La Scala © Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Academy Evening at La Scala
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Its current 1,200, under-30 students – overseen by president Alexander Pereira and director Luisa Vinci –  traverse two-year programs (eight years for steely ballerinas) in music, dance, backstage/workshops or management. Prospective singers, dancers, machinists, mechanics, stagehands, set designers, seamstresses, makeup artists, wig designers and hairstylists cut teeth on 30 professional and preparatory courses.

On Sunday night, Italian soprano and Academy teacher Luciana Serra came to cheer the young graduates among friends, family and faculty. Her Academy collaboration began two decades ago when close friend Leyla Gencer (its inaugural artistic director) came calling.

"'Luciana, you must come! The Academy needs you!'," said Serra, sweetly-affecting Gencer's voice. "So we started this beautiful journey together, I did technique and she did interpretation."

"Students who come to the academy are already formed,” she continued. “I’m not trying to change their technique – I want to improve, polish and perfect it. I'm respectful of my singers, especially my students, because being a student is tough! I went through the same journey and learned from my teacher, a baritone, how to be organized, precise and professional. The best teacher doesn't just focus on the voice, but on how everything works together – grace, composure, gesture and behavior.”

Serra's teaching style is deliberate. "I'm demanding but respectful. Often when students sing for teachers, they fear to make mistakes, so they close themselves up. I tell them, 'Don't worry – what comes will come. Help me understand your intentions and what you want to do, and if it's wrong, we'll adjust it.' That's all there is to it!"

Students from the La Scala Academy © Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Students from the La Scala Academy
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

She cites impatience as students’ biggest obstacle. "La voglia di correre," she says. Literally, the desire to run. Figuratively, impatience while pacing oneself. "Students need time to develop – and unfortunately, time is rarely present today – but if you don't study properly, you create a grand confusion with your repertoire. My teacher had a good example: he called it la stella filante. A shooting star. When you're young, you can shoot up very high, very quickly, but it risks a quick burn-out."

Between lessons, technical and interpretive skills are honed under vocal and musical foundations through masterclasses. Past guests have included Luis Alva, Teresa Berganza, Mirella Freni, Christa Ludwig, Leo Nucci, Renata Scotto and Shirley Verrett.

Also present to rally students was Italian baritone Renato Bruson. "I knew that I always wanted to stay in the environment of singers," he said on his Academy association. "So when the Academy asked me to collaborate, I gladly accepted because I could transmit 53 years of an international career to young students."

He considers Academy students as ambassadors, and teaches interpretation through tough love. "Anyone can sing well in a classroom, but to sing well onstage and transmit an emotion to the audience is a completely different thing – and it's the most important thing – because you're interpreting a character who has to live within you, which you then have to transmit to the audience. If you can't do that, there's really no point."

His best advice to students? "Studiare sempre! Always study. Especially the music. If you're singing a historical character, study every single thing that exists on their personality – how they lived, how they slept, how they ate, how they wept."

Such stellar advice has helped bring former Academy graduates to international stages such as Carmen Giannattasio, Anja Kampe, Irina Lungu, Nino Machaidze, Pretty Yende, Nino Surguladze, Massimo Cavalletti and Giuseppe Filianoti.

Chiara Isotton © Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Chiara Isotton
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The latest batch of graduates hope to follow in their footsteps. After Pereira handed-out diplomas, Milanese maestro Stefano Ranzani rocketed the young Academy Orchestra into a fearless Rossini La gazza ladra overture. Academy instrumentalists rack 700 performance hours split in two years between symphony, opera, ballet, an annual tournée, and an "Academy Project" performance with Academy singers – the 2014-15 season hosts a Ponnelle Il barbiere di Siviglia with Leo Nucci’s Figaro, and five free concerts in the theater's gilded Toscanini foyer.

In radiant voice, the six graduates were joined by six in medias res undergrads in unbashful color palettes – from lips to gowns, from bow ties to cummerbunds – such as the oxblood tuxedo accents of exuberant baritone Giovanni Romeo, who flashed megawatt charisma and voracious confidence for a spirited "Se ho da dirla" from Rossini's Il turco in Italia.

Mezzo Aya Wakizono mastered a bell-bright top for a tremendously flexible "Tanti affetti in tal momento" from Rossini's La donna del lago; Tenor Edoardo Milletti's "Povero Ernesto!" from Donizetti's Don Pasquale was a graceful, emotive triumph, and it came as no surprise that the tenore di grazia noted Alfredo Kraus and Juan Diego Flórez as idols. Elegant tenor powerhouse Azer Rza-Zade gave a brilliantly-burnished "Ah, la paterna mano" from Verdi's Macbeth; Bass Davide Giangregorio combined muscled weight with bel canto grace in "Accusata di furto" from La gazza ladra; and mezzo Lilly Jørstad stunned with "Nobles seigneurs, salut!" from Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots.

Sofia Mchedlishvili © Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Sofia Mchedlishvili
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Among the 2015 graduates, baritone Petro Ostapenko gave an introspective, respectful “Ah, per sempre io ti perdei” from Bellini's I puritani; baritone Kwanghyun Kim's "Per me giunto...Io morrò" from Verdi's Don Carlo mastered great temperament and sustainment; soprano Fatma Said's "Nel villaggio d'Edgar" from Puccini's Edgar blossomed under supple, delicate phrasing; and the well-oiled, disciplined tenor Sehoon Moon's "Che gelida manina" from Puccini's La bohème transmitted pure joy over thriving top notes.

Post-concert in the gold-leaf foyer, soprano Sofia Mchedlishvili (who knocked-out lithe, bel canto tricks for "Je suis Titania la blonde" from Thomas' Mignon) said that she was looking forward to a Queen of the Night role debut at Verona’s Teatro Filarmonico this summer. Her best piece of advice from Academy days? "Singers need to be true to themselves, and always believe in themselves."

At her side was fellow graduate, soprano Chiara Isotton, who’d earlier sung an incisive, velvety "Pace, pace mio Dio!" from Verdi's La forza del destino. While wrapping up Alisa in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at La Scala, she’s working on a couple of top secret projects ("finger crossed!" she beamed). Her most valuable lesson from the Academy? "Technique is important, but I believe if we're able to make our audience feel the emotion, we've done our job. Metterci cuore e anima. Give it all you've got, with all your heart and soul."