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ONE MAN'S DIVA ...

... can be another's forgettable starlet. 'Divas' lineup may have both.

Tonight at 9 p.m., VH1 will revive its once-popular Divas series, in which well-piped rock royals belt, duet and hair-flip in each other's sparkly orbit. Previous star-packed eps showcased Diana Ross, Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey, powerhouses all. The latest lineup features such high-wattage names as Adele (wait - what?), Leona Lewis (are we reading this press release right?) and Miley Cyrus (sheesh, is a 12-year-old booking talent at VH1?). It's hosted in glorious post-Idol fashion by Paula Abdul. (Now, there's a diva!) The show - which promises to hover somewhere between watchable and what's-on-HBO? - will be broadcast from the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House. To bring order back to the divaverse, Times pop music critic Sean Daly and performing arts critic John Fleming present the all-time greatest divas in their respective musical fields.

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Sean's top five pop divas

5. Madonna: She's not exactly a world-class warbler. Then again, Like a Virgin ain't exactly Ave Maria. But what Madge lacks in vocal derring-do, she makes up for in invention and scariness. Her lovely M.J. eulogy at the MTV VMAs will only add to queenly aura.

4. Whitney Houston: Back before Bobby Brown inhaled her life force like one of those Dementors in Harry Potter, the Queen of the Night couldlay claim to one of the great church voices of the 20th century.

3. Celine Dion: It's easy to make fun of Celine. It's even easier to make fun of her husband, Rene. And yet the Canadian chest-pounder is an indomitable sales force who owned Vegas during her stand at Caesar's.

2. Barbra Streisand: Any diva worth her designer bottled water chilled at exactly 76 degrees will have as many fans as foes. And Babs might be the most polarizing lady on our list. And yet, La Streisand could win almost any singing contest. Unless she was going up against ...

1. Aretha Franklin:"Whatchuwant? Baby I got it!" You can't argue with the Queen of Soul taking the top spot. She does what she wants, including wearing a steroidal bow on her hat at the presidential inauguration. Aretha: large, in charge and forever the diva to beat.

Sean Daly is the Times pop music critic. E-mail him at sdaly@sptimes.com.

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John's top five operatic divas

5. Patti LuPone: Broadway's reigning diva. She's performed all the big, temperamental roles: Mama Rose, Mrs. Lovett, Evita and Norma Desmond.

4. Kathleen Battle: An angelic soprano, but impossibly neurotic. In 1994, the Metropolitan Opera kicked her out of The Daughter of the Regiment for outrageous backstage behavior, and she hasn't been invited back.

3. Angela Gheorghiu: Romanian prima donna known as "La Draculette" for her ego and temper. She and husband Roberto Alagna, a preening, unreliable tenor, have been called the Bonnie and Clyde of the opera world.

2. Judy Garland: A beginner's diva. Before many fans discover the real thing in opera, they first love Judy. Required viewing: I Could Go on Singing, her last movie in which she is jealous of opera singers like Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi.

1. Maria Callas: The diva of all divas. Her 1953 recording of Tosca is essential listening. Tampa Bay diva lovers can even claim the Greek-American soprano as one of their own: She spent childhood summers in Tarpon Springs.

John Fleming is the Times performing arts critic. E-mail him at fleming@sptimes.com.

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