Ad Astra Music Festival

Est. 2014 in Russell, Kansas



Soprano Nini Marchese graduated with a Bachelor’s of Music in Vocal Performance from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in May. This season she sang the role of Cobweb and covered Tytania in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Lyric Theatre @ Illinois. As co-founder of La Nuova Aurora, the student-run opera company, she performed the role of Phildel and Venus in Purcell's King Arthur. She has sung the title role in Rameau’s opera-ballet Zéphyre, Evanco in Handel’s Rodrigo, Barbarina in Le Nozze di Figaro, and Papagena in Die Zauberflöte. As a chamber singer this season she performed with Concerto Urbano Baroque Ensemble, the newly-formed Renaissance choir, ecco, and the University of Illinois Chamber Singers under the direction of Andrew Megill. At Illinois, Nini is a recipient of the Voice Division Achievement Award and the Thomas J. Smith scholarship.


Jessica Kerler graduated from Westminster Choir College in May, receiving her Bachelor's degree in Voice Performance, studying with Mark Moliterno. While at Westminster, she collaborated with many coaches, including JJ Penna and Rachelle Jonck. With the Westminster Symphonic Choir, she has worked with conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Daniele Gatti, and Yannick Nezet-Seguin. She was a member and social chair of the prestigious Westminster Choir and performed on tours throughout the country. Through this ensemble, Jessica worked as a chorister in the Spoleto Festival USA for three seasons. She is an alumna of the CoOperative Program, where she studied with Nova Thomas. Past credits include Menotti's The Medium (Madame Flora), Viardot's Cendrillon (Armelinde), Verdi's Falstaff (Mistress Quickly), and Tchaikovsky's Iolanta  (Ensemble) with Westminster Opera Theatre, and John Adams' El Niño, Janácek's Kát'a Kabanová, and Lachenmann's Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzchen with the Spoleto Festival USA. 


Francis Williams, a native of Long Island, NY, completed a Bachelor's Degree in Vocal Performance from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, where he was a voice student of Eric Rieger. At Westminster, he collaborated frequently with renowned pianist, JJ Penna. As a member of the 40-voice Westminster Choir, he has performed on tours in Oklahoma, Texas, and in California. With the Westminster Symphonic Choir, he has worked with conductors such as Jacque Lacombe, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Simon Rattle, Daniele Gatti, and Joe Miller. He has performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. He worked as a chorister with the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina for the past three summers, with directors such as John La Bouchardiere and Tony Award winner Garry Hynes. Past credits include Jonathan in Handel's Saul, Tchaikovsky's Iolanta (Almeric) with Westminster Opera Theatre, Handel's Acis and Galatea (Acis) with Westminster Opera Workshop, and John Adams' El Niño (Chorus), Janaceck's Kat'a Kabanova with the Spoleto Festival USA. Francis returns a second year as a tenor Young Artist with the Ad Astra Music Festival.


John Bitsas, bass-baritone, graduated with a Bachelor of Music in Voice Performance from Simpson College this spring, where he studied voice with Matthew Lau and coached with Robert Larsen. John has performed with Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, Des Moines Metro Opera, Central Iowa Orchestra, Orchestra Iowa, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Repertoire includes Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro, Commessario in La Traviata, Simone in Gianni Schicchi, Le fauteuil in L’enfant et les sortilèges, Endimione in La Calisto, George Jones in Street Scene, and The Abbot in Curlew River, as well as bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah, Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate Deo, Beethoven’s Fantasia in C minor, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb. In the fall of 2016, John will be attending Boston Conservatory to pursue a Master of Music in Opera Performance.