HEARTBEAT : How Do I Gift Thee?

John Axelrod was looking for a special little something to give his wife for Valentine's Day last year when it dawned on him that he could combine two personal passions--music and 19th-Century Romantic poetry--into a gift a whole lot more impressive and personal than the usual chocolate or Chanel. So Axelrod, a composer, took a dozen classic love poems and set them to music.

It turned out to be more than a gift, though: It became an album, "How Do I Love Thee: Love Songs for the Romantic at Heart," which he produced and released on his own label, Ivy League Records. Richard Bernstein of the L.A. Music Center Opera and Malcolm Mackenzie of the Metropolitan Opera are among the performers who sing works like Poe's "Annabel Lee" and Christina Rossetti's "A Birthday" set to Axelrod's neoclassical compositions. His album is getting regular airplay on KUSC, and Tower Classics and the Los Angeles Opera Shop have already sold thousands of albums.

"I did this for myself and my wife," says Axelrod, a former Atlantic Records A&R; rep who was involved in the early development of such groups as Jellyfish and Smashing Pumpkins, "but it's grown into something much bigger." And not just a CD: He and a partner, L.A. songwriter Pamela Phillips Oland, have expanded it into an operetta in which Elizabeth Barrett Browning is visited by the ghosts of several Romantic poets and must decide which of them knows the most about love. It's been performed at several small local venues and Orange County's Opera Pacific will stage a production this spring, Axelrod says.

"Most composers today would want to write with, say, Bernie Taupin or Michael Stipe," he says. "Me, I figured, why not Lord Byron and Yeats? These poets knew a lot about love that we tend to forget."

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