Tilo Nest is part of the Berliner Ensemble and is coming to Adelaide Festival for Barrie Kosky’s production of The Threepenny Opera, in which he will play the role of Mr. Peachum. Tilo Nest chats to us about this opera, his very varied career (when we spoke to him he was playing a demented grandmother in a German play) and much more.
Bonjour Tilo Nest, I read that The Threepenny Opera was inspired by, among other things, 4 François Villon songs.
Yes, that’s right. Brecht stole from everywhere.
Even his wife, I think!
Yes, that’s right.
You have had a very varied career, and have been part of lots of shows which look like they’d be quite amusing to be in. I have the impression you have a lot of fun.
Yes, I really like to express myself and to express myself in all sorts of ways because I think that in each artform there is no difference, there is only the desire to express yourself. But during my career, that’s also caused some problems because people don’t know who I am. Am I an actor who does film? Am I a singer? Am I a theatre actor? etc. And sometimes that doesn’t help.
I think that in each artform there is no difference, there is only the desire to express yourself.
I want to have a splendid career. Unfortunately, you have to make decisions. But for me, what counts is the desire to do something and to sing and also not to sing. And sometimes, I want to paint and write novels.
You’re very creative.
All of that pleases me and makes me want to live.
Have you been creative ever since you were a child ?
I think so, because you could say I’m a bit of an amateur psychiatrist looking at of myself, but I think it’s because I’ve always been a bit smaller than the others and I had problems during my adolescence. It was late for me. I was waiting. Everyone around me was making progress and going through changes. And I was thinking “and me? when me?” My solution was to become the class clown at school.
When a theatre troupe was formed, there was no question about it, I was joining. I thought it was going to be the place where I could breathe. And that was the case, it was like that straight away. So, I decided to become an actor when I think I was 16 or 17, something like that. But I had to do my compulsory service so it took a while longer. And it was also hard to get a place in the well-known [theatre] schools. There were a lot of people who wanted to go there. Sometimes there were 1000 applicants for 10 spots, something like that. It took a while and then I got place at the Mozarteum in Salzburg.
The Mozarteum is a place where theatre and also music are taught?
There are students there who are there for instruments and singing but there is also a school for acting. However, I have always had an affection for music; I learnt to play the piano.
Yes, I saw that and wondered what made you change from piano and classical music towards acting in theatre, film and television.
Because I think I was too weak for the piano. So the piano was my favourite instrument but you have to practise, practise, practise. To tell you the truth, I’m a bit lazy.
Yes, of course it’s hours and hours of training, but acting is hours and hours of training too.
Yes, and it never stops. But with the piano in particular, it’s the technique that you have to practise for hours on end. And in this case, I didn’t feel like doing that, I didn’t have the strength. But of course, I studied instruments beforehand, and that helped me a lot during my career as an actor.
Now I’ve noticed that it’s become more normal in schools for actors to have to sing well too. Before, when I was studying, it wasn’t the norm that, on the contrary, there were colleagues who said “well, they have enormous talent, but they can’t sing, but that’s OK”. These days, I think, we’re much more interested in artists who can do everything. And, of course, if we’re talking about The Threepenny Opera, it helps a lot if the actors can sing.
We did a casting session with Barrie Kosky. Because he often does operas and he’s very respectful of the music and the notes, and he wanted to have good actors who could also sing very well but without singing like opera singers. That means we sing with others, much more with voices of songwriters, not of opera singers.
Had you ever worked with Barrie Kosky before? Before this production?
It was the first time, I think, for the whole ensemble. I was very happy because, after that work, he asked me to do a plunge afterwards with La cage aux folles (The Bird Cage). It was also directed by Barrie Kosky at the Komische Oper Berlin.
Has it already been performed?
Yes. It premiered about nine months ago or something like that, and we’ll be doing it again in April and May 2024. And recently, I got an email asking me to play in May 2025 already. For me, it was the first time – I played in Mozart’s ‘Die Entführung aus dem Serail’ but in that I was playing a role for actor, I didn’t sing, of course. But here [in The Bird Cage], for the first time in my life, I sang with the great orchestra of the opera, and that was really something, a very special experience. It’s something new because you have to work a lot more with the conductor. That means he gives a lot of signals. Above all, you have to act with him, and after him. Because as an actor, I normally play with my own impulses. I do as I feel, as I want. But there’s a system here, you have to work with it, and La Cage aux Folles is completely different.
And here, in The Threepenny Opera, we have a great guy, Adam Benzwi, as the conductor who worked with his own chamber orchestra for the staging. I really liked working with him. Adam Benzwi has already done a lot of work with Barrie Kosky at the Komische Oper, where he did a lot of operettas from the 20s.
I sang it [the role of Mr Peachum in The Threepenny Opera] once before, it’s funny, 15 years ago in Basel, so I was a bit afraid that I was repeating myself.
So you played the same role as the one you play in The Threepenny Opera, that of Mr Peachum?
Yes, and it was great because with him, I started from zero because he said, “First, we’re going to read the song“, so I read it. “And now tell me, what are you saying in your own words?” And that’s how we started to see what we were talking about, what we were singing about and not the notes and all that. That came later. And that’s why I often say, in this production, we’re not actors who sing, I think we’re songwriters or singers who think, who reflect. It’s not about being the most beautiful or the most accurate. You have to sing with your feelings, your thoughts, your worries and all of that.
in this production, we’re not actors who sing, I think we’re songwriters or singers who think, who reflect. It’s not about being the most beautiful or the most accurate. You have to sing with your feelings, your thoughts, your worries.
How is Barrie Kosky’s produciton of The Threepenny Opera that you were in 15 years ago?
The other one was a completely different production. It was directed by someone who wasn’t very musical. His thinking was mainly that politics were more important, but it was also a bit black and white, the poor and the rich. He mainly looked at the social aspects.
You could say that Barrie Kosky’s version is a bit more like a big show. But I think, with Kosky’s staging, we’ve also found the parts that connect with our lives today. But at the same time, it’s more of a big show than the staging I did 15 years ago.
Yes, I’ve seen photos. The Threpenny Opera has a very impressive set.
Yes. But it was a decision not to try to play in the 20s. Of course, it’s a bit like Berlin in the ’20s. Are you familiar with the Australian series Babylon? It’s a very popular series, I think all over the world. Barrie Kosky and the woman who did the sets, they decided to look for a place that wasn’t too specific, that was universally valid.
Universally valid. So the setting could be anywhere in the world and in any era.
You can’t read it right away. And it helps that people, they listen to a bit of what we are thinking, saying and talking about. Of course, we have clothes, but they’re not very specific [to an era]. And above all, in The Threepenny Opera, I’m the leader of the tramps who have to play different roles to earn money for me.
And can you tell us a bit about your character in The Threepenny Opera? For people who don’t know anything about the piece.
Normally, it’s set in Victorian London. And I’m the king of the tramps. I’m sort of the leader of the London underground at that time. I’m in the process, with my wife, of becoming a bit of a member of society. So I’ve tried not just to be the crook, the criminal. But I’m in the process, when we start with the opera, I’m starting to become a bit of a member of society. I’m trying to be one.
But during the play, unfortunately, my daughter marries a guy called Mack The Knife, a man who is not very honest, and who may have already killed people. My daughter gets married behind our backs and behind the backs of the rest of London. She’s married in secret, so this guy becomes my private enemy. I know all about him being imprisoned by the police and I have this idea that he’s going to be hung. And because it’s an opera that also tells a bit of a story, a tale, at the end there’s a message from the King saying “no, Mack the Knife is no longer an enemy of the state“. On the contrary, he is given money and a castle to live in for the rest of his life. It’s very cynical.
When we played in Edinburgh in August, it was funny because in The Threepenny Opera, they play, of course, with subjects about royalty: the Queen, the King. And also because he [Mack the Knife] is forgiven. It wasn’t long after Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of England, resigned. He was also a crook. And he also did a lot of business on the side like that. And he also pardoned some rather strange guys and that’s why the audience laughed so much. Because of that, we received a lot of reactions, more than in Berlin. They read things in the story that we didn’t read in it in Berlin.
I saw that you also have a lot of experience in television and film. How does this work inform your acting?
Well, I think I’m mainly a theatre actor, and from time to time, I do some film or TV work. You could say that, in truth, of course, the two are connected, but that’s something else entirely. Talking of preparation and rehearsals, when I’m shooting, often we don’t really rehearse. It depends on the director. For television, this means that we always have to work very fast. It means that we don’t have time to really rehearse, we just keep going and going.
And here in Europe, in Berlin for example, in this Berliner Ensemble theatre, we have about six weeks to rehearse and we do a lot of research, we have time to make mistakes, it’s completely different. For me, what I like about filming, is working outdoors, sometimes being able to see places that you wouldn’t normally see. And above all, of course, you become better known very quickly when you’re on television. You’re seen for two minutes on TV and then your aunt and uncle say “Ah, I’ve seen you“. And normally they don’t go to the theatre, they’re not interested in what I’m doing there? We’ve become more interesting because we’ve been seen on TV!
No need to leave the house to see you then!
I haven’t had enough experience in front of the cameras yet. So I want to do a bit more of that over the next few years.
Do you already have any projects lined up?
Right now I’m doing two productions in other theatres. That means I’ll have a bit more freedom than I have now to do other things, because I’m changing my contract a bit. That doesn’t mean I’m no longer working for the Berliner Ensemble, but once again I’m going to look around.
You’re a little freer. Coming back to The Threepenny Opera, people say it’s a play with music. How is it different from a musical?
What do you think a musical is?
For me, a musical normally means that most of the dialogue is sung or that every time there’s a big event, there’s a song about it. I don’t know if that’s the definition, but that’s what it is for me.
Yes, and it’s especially because with The Threepenny Opera, our attraction, is that we talk a lot. We talk a lot and sometimes we sing. And even Brecht, in his epic theatre, wanted the songs to be really separate from the play. That means that the singer sits down in front of the orchestra, sings, and tells the story to the audience, not in his own role, but as the teller of the story. But with Barrie Kosky, we looked for ways to accommodate, we looked for ways to make the songs part of our roles, And the reverse, they’re also part of the singing, which means there’s a trio between my daughter, my wife and me in which we argue, and we argue in song and we play it out. We sing with the situation. But for me, a good musical has to be like that. I think you almost have to forget that you’re singing. You have to notice the feelings, if you look. I’m not interested in singing well. But my opinion is my own, a bit special perhaps because I’m an actor who sings and not a singer who acts on the side.
A good musical has to be like that. I think you almost have to forget that you’re singing.
I’ve had my own concerts. I sing Tom Waits songs for example, I did an evening called Thomas Wartet. It’s a play on words, it means Tom waits in German. Like the good chansonniers, like Aznavour and Jacques Brel, he tells stories, he talks about emotions and doesn’t try to sing very beautifully. And for me, it’s most interesting to get the feeling that he sings with emotion, with sweat, with his own experience.
I saw that you have also directed, other productions of course. After being director yourself. how hard it is going back to taking direction?
So, it was about 12 years ago that I directed. It didn’t last. I don’t know, maybe I didn’t have the guts but I didn’t hesitate. I had a friend who called me, he was the head of a theatre in the Ruhr, and he said “OK, now it’s your turn Tilo” and I said “What? What do you mean? “You’re going to do it now. I know you can do it.”
Then, I noticed that it makes me want to do it a lot more, because you have more [as a director] than as an actor, you think about everything. And above all, to have the opportunity to create some of the visions, the utopias that I have in life. What do I want to say? What do I want others to think about whatever it is? Well, I came back here, I was in Vienna. And of course I noticed that during rehearsals, when I was acting again, I started to think “ahh, wrong” but I managed to cut it out. It’s also a chance not to think about everything all the time, to concentrate on my work, and to do it better and better, I hope. That was ten years ago, something like that. It worked well.
I’ve noticed that it’s getting harder and harder for me to cut myself off and not think “no, no, do that instead” “yes, I do, I know” because sometimes I notice the mistakes… Of course, I have a different taste in things.
But you also have a lot of experience and sometimes you go to work with directors who are much younger, who don’t have that experience, but who are perhaps a bit stubborn.
It gets harder and harder to tell you the truth. But I also think that it helps to stay a bit alive in the profession, in the business, if you remain open to other ideas and perhaps to other ways of doing things. And I’m sure that, because of this, I’m going to get Alzheimer’s a little later than normal because my brain has to work. You have to try and stay young.
Why do you recommend that audiences come and see The Threepenny Opera?
Because I think that The Threepenny Opera is really a milestone in the history of theatre. It’s almost 100 years since The Threepenny Opera had its premiere. And it had its premiere in the same theatre where we now performed The Threepenny Opera [in Berlin]. For me, it’s very touching personally to sing this opera, which has become very popular and known the world over, and to play it, to sing it there, for me personally, I’m very touched.
I think Barrie Kosky won because he found a way of staging this fairly modern production, with problems that affect people today, or unfortunately still do, and that don’t change. But what’s more, he’s produced a production that’s a feast for the eyes and ears. There’s a lot to see, it’s very attractive.
And the music, we haven’t talked about Kurt Weill; we’ve talked a lot about Brecht. Of course, we have to talk about Kurt Weill because the music was a huge success for The Threepenny Opera. It’s brilliant music, truly timeless. It’s still modern. They really are earworms. I think I’ve heard Mack the Knife about 10,000 times because you hear it everywhere and especially during the show, it’s sung at the beginning, in the middle and the music comes when we do the applause. And it doesn’t help that we sing it on the way home! It’s great because it doesn’t get old. I don’t know how, but it stays. It’s great. I love Kurt Weill’s music.
We would like to thank Tilo Nest for this interview. We’re looking forward to seeing The Threepenny Opera at the Adelaide Festival this March.
KEY INFO FOR THE THREEPENNY OPERA
WHAT: The Threepenny Opera directed by Barrie Kosky
WHERE: Her Majesty’s Theatre
WHEN: Wed 06 Mar, 7:00pm
Thu 07 Mar, 7:00pm
Fri 08 Mar, 7:00pm
Sat 09 Mar, 2:00pm
Sun 10 Mar, 4:00pm
HOW: Purchase your tickets via this link
HOW MUCH: Ticket prices vary from $159 to $259 for full-priced tickets. There are discounted tickets for Festival Friends, Concession (Pensioner, Health Care Card* holder, MEAA/Actors’ Equity member), Under 30 years old (ID required), and Full-time student (ID required).
For events with links to France and the Francophonie happening in Australia this month, check out our What’s on in February